a sinclair A-Z: g is for ghosts

  • An occasional series on the work of Iain Sinclair
    rodinskyThe book Rodinsky’s Room (1999) is a collaboration between Iain Sinclair and British writer and artist Rachel Lichtenstein. By focusing on Sinclair, it is not my intention to marginalise Lichtenstein’s contribution to the book and to he project behind it. Rather, I am using Sinclair’s treatment of David Rodinsky and his room as a way of assessing Sinclair’s larger, ongoing project on spectral London.

 David Rodinsky, a member of London’s East End Jewish community, left his lodgings above the synagogue in Princelet Street, Spitalfields in 1967 and never returned. His room was discovered, untouched since his disappearance, more than a decade later. As motif, Rodinsky’s room travels throughout Sinclair’s work, and the book with Lichtenstein marks the apotheosis of an enduring fascination that began, in written form at least, with an article in the Guardian in the late 1980s. This article was later re-written as fiction to as a chapter in the novel Downriver (1991). Sinclair then turned the Rodinsky story back into non-fiction with references in Liquid City (1999), and in two dedicated volumes: the joint work with Lichtenstein, and a shorter small-press non-fiction Dark Lanthorns: Rodinsky’s A-Z (1999) which reimagines Rodinsky as a psychogeographer. Pieces of these numerous textual Rodinskys re-appear in a short story, ‘The Keeper of the Rothenstein Tomb’ (2000), in the non-fiction London Orbital (2002), and in the novel Dining on Stones (2004). Sinclair’s edited volume City of Disappearances (2006) shares the Rodinsky book’s approach to historiography, and even though its remit is far wider can thus be viewed as connected to the body of work on Rodinsky.

At its heart, Rodinsky’s Room is a ghost story (with elements of the detective genre) that is intimately connected with the social, cultural, and spatial history of the Jewish East End. Sinclair’s preoccupation with the spectral has not gone unnoticed, with critic Ian Penman (2001) noting, ‘Sinclair writes ghost stories, of a sort: whatever his subject, there is always a low, persistent note of something mourned, spectral, lost.’ I’m not so interested in the tropes of the spectral in Sinclair’s writing.  I want, instead, to suggest that Sinclair’s deployment of the spectral —and I am including references to the occult within the category of the spectral—has a number of objectives.

The first is to conjure Londons that no longer exist: for instance, the counter-cultural London depicted in this photograph from 1990 by Sinclair long-time collaborator Marc Atkins.

Marc Atkins (1999)

In Liquid City, a collection of vignettes recalling vanished Londons , Sinclair describes this moment captured by Atkins in terms of the spectral.

The survivors gathered outside this pub, with its murky history, for the group shot. […] None of the other hacks turned up. The event was off-piste. A ghost circus. […] The line-up looks like a who’s-next-for-the-grim-reaper? competition. […] The night is inky. The Carpenters Arms (no nonsense about apostrophes) has detached itself from London and is floating across the glacial rim of deep space. A chorus of lightly fleshed skeletons take their bow.

Secondly, the immaterialism, or even anti-materialism of spectral presences like those in the photo provide Sinclair with the means to evade the spatial and temporal axioms that regulate contemporary London. Sinclair’s mobilisation of the spectral is, according to Roger Luckhurst, linked to the ‘historical avant-garde’s interest in the occult as a mode of resisting instrumental reason and the tyranny of planned space.’ Jacques Derrida writes of the spectral as this non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one no longer belongs to knowledge’ (1994, p.6). In the context of Sinclair’s writing, we might read ‘knowledge’ here as neo-liberal modes of knowing the city.

The third is that through bringing the past into the present, spectrality creates anachrony. Derrida, taking his cue from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, tells us in his theory of the hauntological that the spectral is time out of joint. It is an absence that is present, in both the material and temporal sense of the word.

In his debut novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987)which is set in a fictionalised Spitalfields, the area of London where Rodinsky’s room was uncovered—Sinclair acknowledged the anachrony and the temporal and spatial dialectic between absence and presence at work in spectrality:

We have to imagine some stupendous whole wherein all that has ever come into being or will come co-exists, which, passing slowly on, leaves in this flickering consciousness of ours, limited to a narrow space and a single moment, a tumultuous record of changes and vicissitudes that are but to us.

So it’s all there in the breath of the stones. There is a geology of time! We can take the bricks into our hands: as we grasp them, we enter it. The dead moment only exists as we live it now. No shadows across the landscape of the past – we have the past, we have what is coming; we arrive at what was, and we make it now.

In Rodinsky’s room—where Rodinsky is both absent presence and present absence, and the residue of the past exists in the present—time is out of joint.

Rodinsky’s Room is a place through which Sinclair can articulate his theory of history. Sinclair’s work on London exhibits meticulously, some might say obsessively, researched histories of the city, yet their intent is never to actualise history from the ‘top down,’ so to speak, or to organise history as a ‘continuous, systematic narrative of past events (Sinclair, 2004). In his breakthrough collection of essays on London, Lights Out for the Territory (1997) Sinclair outlined his concept of history. It is

the revenge of the disenfranchised. Improvisations of history that are capable of making adjustments in present time. […] The past is fluid, a black swamp; dip for whatever you need. Stepping off the main road at this point lands you right in it.

Sinclair is excavating neglected or occulted seams of history. Rodinsky and his room are two of these seams. Structurally, the book is a montage that alternates between Lichtenstein’s and Sinclair’s first person narratives. The fragmented, multi-perspectival approach also incorporates many other voices from past and present East End inhabitants. There are, then, two methodologies at work here: Lichtenstein’s, as she has explained elsewhere, is autobiographical, genealogical, mnemonic, and Sinclair’s is a meta-narrative that functions as a commentary on Lichtenstein’s methodology. As far as Sinclair is concerned Lichtenstein’s involvement in the project is crucial because her authority to tell the story far exceeds Sinclair’s. She is, Sinclair says, linked to the story through

[o]wnership: without title deeds or rent book. Ownership, in the high Blakean style, by assertion; by incorporating the everyday particular into a mythological structure. Title by possession. By love. By painstakingly recovered memory.

More significantly, Lichtenstein has been designated by some occult energy to ventriloquise the tale of Rodinsky and his room, at least according to Sinclair. His inventory of her roles emphasises the spectral dimension of her histories which undo time and create anachrony:

The more documentation Rachel could file, the more artefacts she could photograph and label, the more elusive this fiction, David Rodinsky, became. She improvised with all the required roles: private detective, archaeologist, curator, ghost-writer, ventriloquial deliverer of Rodinsky’s voice and art. She realised with a proper sense of dread, that the business of her life, this stretch of it, was to complete whatever it was that Rodinsky had begun: to pass beyond ego, and all the dusty particulars of place and time, into a parallel state. Disincarnate. Unbodied. Eternally present.

Time is out of joint in Lichtenstein’s re-telling of Rodinsky’s life. Sinclair borrows the figure of the golem from Jewish mythology to contextualise Lichtenstein’s re-writing of Rodinsky’s biography. As conceived in Gustave Meyrink’s 1914 eponymous tale, the golem is another paradoxical presence that is an absence.


Sinclair explains,

In movement the golem is unseen, only when he comes to rest is he vulnerable. […] Sudden invisibility is a consequence of recognition. Speak of him and he isn’t there. But any new telling of the tale can only begin from the disappearance.

The erasure, disappearance, absence of the golem is a counterpoint to the obscene visibility of other spectacularized iterations of history that Sinclair detects in ‘baggy horrors about stinky, seething Elizabethan/Victorian London, poverty porn illustrated from the archive. Wormy history cooked up to make us feel good about the thin air of the present.’ For Sinclair, the epitome of history as spectacle is the insistent visualisations of the Dennis Severs House, a contemporary re-enactment of Georgian London in a Spitalfields house. Overweening visibility is the Severs House’s failure. It indicates, Sinclair says, ‘a loss of undertext. Everything is suddenly explained, overemphasized, brochured.’

Sinclair is an obscurantist preferring to milk occult sources that exist outside any official or visible economies of knowledge and that resist resurrection. Sinclair exalts the evasive Rodinsky as the ‘man who invented himself through his disappearance. [… He] perched under the eaves, a crow, unremarked and unremarkable – until that day in the Sixties when he achieved the great work and became invisible.’ For Sinclair, Rodinsky’s room is captivating precisely because it is ‘a missing text. A text that had been worn away by indifference, the exigencies of the everyday.’ This predilection for the unknowable, the unseen, the chthonic—’It was the bits you couldn’t see, black holes on the map, unlisted bunkers and disregarded lives that made most noise’ —becomes a compulsive resistance to the London whose secret histories have been brought to light, and exploited by the heritage industry, gentrifiers, and real estate developers.

Cultural historian Patrick Wright explains how Rodinsky’s room was implicated in the commodification of place in London through the excavation of hidden histories, a process that Wright has called ‘ghosting’:

With its layers of engrained filth and its walls papered over with newsprint, this foul little hole stands in unmistakable tribute to the documentary tradition. […] By the Eighties, and especially when the property market started to move, this blitzed-out imagery of the slum interior was being augmented and put to very different purposes: it was beginning to turn up in the brochures of the more style-conscious estate agents in nearby areas like Islington.

Sinclair alludes to ‘ghosting’ when his says that Rodinsky and his story generate mainstream interest only as far as they can be appropriated as marketing devices:

It is uncertain how many weeks or years passed before anyone noticed his absence. He had evaporated, and would remain as dust, his name unspoken, to be resurrected only as a feature, a necessary selling point, to put alongside Nicholas Hawksmoor in the occult fabulation of the zone that the Eighties demanded to justify a vertiginous inflation in property values.

In Sinclair’s view, textual appropriation of London and of its histories by artists and writers can be akin to ghosting, and other modes of spatial colonisation like surveillance and gentrification. Thus, Sinclair’s role in the ghosting process is ambivalent. On the one hand, a work like Rodinsky’s Room attributes cultural value to a previously overlooked London history by the very virtue of writing about it. On the other hand, that value ultimately hinges on neglect by the dominant culture, which, of course, is no longer possible once Sinclair’s writing moves it into the spotlight.

Marc Atkins, Rodinsky’s Mirror in Liquid City

The textual metaphor evoked by Rodinsky’s Room is the palimpsest. The palimpsest comes into being when new layers of text partially erase or obscure extant layers. The palimpsest is therefore not conceived as solely an accumulation of residue, but also as erasure. The products of this dialectic of accumulation and erasure are the Derridean supplement, which ‘intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void. If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence.’  The layers of the palimpsest are therefore heterochronotopes that are dialogic in their ahistorical multiplicity. They produce anachrony. These spectral marks and lacunae of the palimpsest  ‘speak’ in their original voice, communicating with new and previous traces and erasures, while retaining their otherness.  This spectrality therefore opens up a possibility for an ethical relationship with the inter-texts of history.

In Liquid City, Sinclair imagines London itself as a ‘textual palimpsest’, as a tissue of partially remembered and forgotten histories. This conceit was elaborated earlier in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings:

The bar has its own sense of what it should be: damp wood bowed like whalebone, cabin-close, engravings of the old city, its secret corners, obscure messages. This interior has a narrative quality […]. WE have to settle ourselves into a text; nothing is written, everything re-written. We are retrospective. Even the walls are soaked with earlier tales, aborted histories.

Literary critic Julian Wolfreys has imagined Sinclair’s writing, too, as a palimpsest, a dialogic layering of inter-texts that mimics the heteroglot text of the city.

This brings us to Sinclair’s methodology in reading and writing the palimpsest. Sinclair’s London is constituted through what is no longer there, as opposed to what is tangible, visible, knowable. In this he is sympathetic to the politics of Situationist psychogeography, the objective of which was to resist and subvert hegemonic urban flows through transformed encounters with the city. In an extended conversation with the journalist Kevin Jackson published in 2003, Sinclair was asked about his interest in psychogeography:

Jackson: It’s more than a metaphor for you?

Sinclair: It’s more than a metaphor.

Jackson: But at the heart of it is the belief that something which happens in a place permanently affects that place?

Sinclair: Very much so. There are these acoustic chambers in the city, voices and echoes…The material that’s sometimes called ‘psychogeography’ is loosely based on that era of primitively sounding out place through possession or séance, rather than […] trying to summon entities, to communicate with them or control them. It wasn’t that at all. It was as if certain places released voices.

In the tradition of William Blake, who we might retrospectively think of as the archetypal London psychogeographer, Sinclair transcribes the spectral voices that emanate from the palimpsestic architecture and streets of London, from which he, in turn, constructs his own written palimpsests. Indeed, in Dark Lanthorns: A Rodinsky A-Z, a small press book published alongside Rodinsky’s Room, Sinclair uses the spectral textual traces left by Rodinsky in a copy of the London A-Z  as the map for a psychogeography of London. Psychogeography, therefore, becomes the means to acknowledge the spectral. At one point in Rodinsky’s Room, Sinclair describes the room as a ‘vortex.’ A vortex connotes movement, and Sinclair believes history’s objective should not be to ‘freeze time, to wrap precious fragments from another time in clingfilm.’ This idea of an inanimate history, mummified, fossilised, ossified, dead is not one to which Sinclair subscribes. Rather, history is vibrating, energised by spectral presences and absences.

(This is a version of a paper I originally presented at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis‘ Spectral Cities seminar series.)

markets in the mall

When I was researching the Sydney chapter of Markets, places, cities, I came across a speech delivered in 1971 by Frank Lowy, founder of the global shopping centre behemoth Westfield, and republished in Australian Property Journal in 2006. In his speech Lowy situated shopping centres within a genealogy of urban marketplaces, declaring that ‘Shopping centres are essentially market places’. For Lowy, the shopping centre was not only the technological and teleological evolution of the market, it was the modern market place. When Westfield started building in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne in the 1950s, they were keen to emulate some of the sensory characteristics and experiences of place in markets (‘‘The shopping centre makes it possible for all who enter its exciting atmosphere to participate … to share an experience … through the visual, aural and touch senses’), as well as the functions of markets as sites of community and sociality. The picture that Lowy drew was of a socially inclusive space and place that met both tangible and intangible community needs.

The centre involves people of all ages – it makes provision for all age groups.
A shopping expedition is no longer a bore to children for the shopping centre touches their imagination as well. There are nurseries, playgrounds and all kinds of entertainment. Teenagers make it their gathering point. Their tastes in clothes, music and food are catered to. It is the hub of their suburban life.

From their inception, shopping centres in Australian suburbs included civic spaces such as community radio broadcast facilities, childcare centres, and open spaces (central atria and courtyards, rooftop gardens) where (potential) consumers could pass the time.

Southland’s Rooftop Garden, 1968
Southland’s Rooftop Garden, 1979

Westfield Southland, which was opened in the Melbourne suburb of Cheltenham in 1968, had a tranquil garden on its rooftop. However, by 2000, the garden was gone and the shopping centre had spread across the Nepean Highway via a pedestrian bridge to take over the former Lucas factory site. (Incidentally, after the Lucas factory shut down, a short-lived market was built on the site.) The current scale of the complex and its virtually non-existent interaction with the local streets and built environment, except as conduits to its car parks, are the antithesis of a marketplace.

Aerial view of Westfield Southland, 2000
Southland, street level, Nepean Highway (File photo)

When I first moved to the Randwick municipality, I was surprised that both my local library and early childhood health centre were located in a local shopping centre. The history of shopping centres in Australian cities illustrates that situating civic spaces within such a milieu is hardly unusual. It is also makes sense in that contemporary shopping centres in major urban centres in Australia are regulated environments, which means they are often clean, climate-controlled, well-lit and the presence of other consumers and visitors reassures and enhances a feeling of security. If you are not put off by artificial light, shiny surfaces, loud music, and the insistent multi-sensory clamour of consumer culture, their conditions provide good spaces for civic services. Walking through another shopping centre as a casual observer recently, I noticed that it was a site of lively, everyday conviviality where a diverse mix of people sat chatting in the few seating areas provided and in the cafes set up in the thoroughfares between shops. I could see that there were correlations between the shopping centre and the marketplace, as Frank Lowy asserted.

However, shopping centres are also quite different places to local markets. As has been noted widely in the literature on contemporary urban space, the shopping centre’s ambivalent status between public and private is problematic, particularly for whose capacity to engage actively with consumer culture is limited – groups like the elderly, the socially and economically disadvantaged, homeless people and teenagers. Moral panics regarding anti-social behaviour become the impetus to discourage or even prohibit certain groups from congregating, and ‘hanging out’ can very easily be reframed as ‘loitering’, and even criminalised.The primary social, spatial and material rationale for the shopping centre is consumption. Even if other types of making take place there simultaneously, they are subsequent to this overriding factor.

On the other hand, local markets and marketplaces form part of the consumer ecology in cities and towns, but they serve many purposes outside of consumption, a situation that is acknowledged,and even encouraged to varying degrees, by market vendors, consumers and managers alike. In Markets, places, cities, I talk about the atmospheres that emerge from place in markets.The atmosphere of the market comes not solely from the goods on sale and the presence of shoppers, but from multiple forms of making that emerge from correspondences between practices, materials, bodies, spatial relations, senses, affects and so on. (I am borrowing from Tim Ingold here with my thoughts on making.) The atmosphere of the market, which has multi-sensory dimensions, is frequently evoked when the marketplace is described in reportage, literature, visual culture and so on.

The shopping centre makes gestures towards atmosphere through its lighting, sound, climate control, visual cues. However, these are teleologically directed towards consumption, and as such a product. Atmosphere can only ever be accidentally emergent in the highly regulated environment of the mall, even when a marketplace is reproduced within it specifically for the purpose of creating and providing atmosphere and place.


My local shopping centre has recently added a market to its civic infrastructure. This initiative is, according to their website,
not your average market! It is the only indoor artisan market in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and we carefully choose our stallholders to ensure that no two stalls carry the same items. All items are designed locally and often lovingly handmade in Australia. Browse over 20 stalls to find unique children’s, women’s and men’s fashion, homewares, jewellery, accessories and art.
The temporary stalls are supplementary to other ‘market-style’ stalls that are permanent fixtures in the shopping centre. These kiosks are a common set up in the open spaces of shopping centres, and further reproduce the continuum of marketplace-mall in that they tend to sell things one can find in markets in any town or city in the world; things like socks, inexpensive toys and mobile phone accessories. Whilst the commodities on sale at the artisan market make a claim to be produced and distributed differently though a connection to the ‘handmade’ (a contested category these days, as ongoing debates about the future of Etsy attest), the way the actual stalls function spatially, and the way that they are set up and the goods laid out does not distinguish them that much from the permanent kiosks. Consumers haptic interaction with the goods on sale and the material contours of the stalls was similar in both types of stalls too, though there was far more sociality and engagement between vendors and (potential) buyers at the artisan market, possibly because the labour of selling and making was less alienated.
Temporary markets stalls, upper level; permanent stall, lower level.
Permanent stall, left foreground; temporary stall, right background.
There was, however, visual dissonance between the artisan market and the ‘bricks and mortar’ shopfronts. The market stalls looked messy in relation to the organised and standardised visual merchandising and layouts of the chain stores, and the overbearing signage and harsh lighting undermined the ‘handmade’ aesthetic that the stalls were promoting.
Other attempts to recreate the ambience of a local marketplace were the involvement of local community groups who had their own stalls and whose logos were included in advertising for the market, and live music.

Aside from the sensory, material atmospheres of a marketplace that this shopping centre was attempting to capture, it was also trying to capture other aesthetics and practices such as craft, vintage, and the handmade. These are currently very popular because they connote more creative, individual, authentic or ethical forms of production and consumption.

A couple of months ago I saw ads for this development at the same shopping centre. The marketing deploys the concepts and language of the artisanal, craft and the handmade – ‘tailor’s’, ‘crafted’, knitted’ ‘fabric’ – to sell real estate. By hosting an ‘artisan’s’ market, the shopping centre was also deploying these same connotations in its branding. Assemblages that advertised the market were placed around the shopping centre on the day. They used the tropes and clichés of hand-crafted – whimsy, play, irony, materiality, floral, vintage, the analogue, the homegrown and homemade – though I would guess that many of the components in these assemblages were mass produced.

These tropes were being deployed more broadly to promote other types of businesses and the shopping centre itself, not just the exceptional event of the market. Balls of yarn – throwbacks to the whimsy of Tourism Victoria’s famous ball of yarn in the Lose Yourself in Melbourne ad from a decade ago – were arranged incongruously with unrelated products in vitrines and suspended above mannequins wearing mass market, imported clothing.


This supported the broader strategy  of branding the shopping centre with words like ‘Community’ and ‘Village’.



The artisan’s market was an element in this narrative about ‘community’ (which without context actually means very little)  because markets are places that we associate with ‘village’-like spaces and atmospheres. The market’s association with craft and the handmade, tropes that are dominant in global consumer culture right now, amplified its role in this story.



decommissioning and recommissioning: first day at frontyard

IMG_8726On my first day at Frontyard, it is hard to sit in one place and write when there are places to explore here in the building,

outside on the street,IMG_8759IMG_8720IMG_8788and further afield in Marrickville.IMG_8689IMG_8703IMG_8697IMG_8701

Frontyard has set up in a building owned by the erstwhile Marrickville Council (now the Inner West Council, but that’s another story). Prior to its use as an arts space, the building was an early childhood health centre. When I mentioned on FB that I was going to be in residence here, one friend, a long-time resident of the area, commented that she had ‘spent many a teary time’ here when her now teenage daughter was a baby. She also pointed out that across the road is the SDN childcare centre, which was established in 1944 to provide care for the children of local female factory workers. The construction of the SDN building was funded by Marrickville Council and through fundraising by the local community.

Image: Brian Yap

These two spaces form part of the infrastructure of community in Marrickville, and in establishing an independent multi-disciplinary community arts space, Frontyard has recommissioned the building for the continued provision of that infrastructure. The types of making going on here go beyond conventional notions of what the role or function of the gallery or studio space might be. One of the directors told me that when they participated in the Marrickville Open Studio Trail (MOST) earlier this year, visitors were perplexed and disappointed upon walking into the space. They wanted to know ‘where is the art’? Frontyard is, above all, concerned with the future of the arts as grounded, emplaced practice and theory within wider communities, and part of that involves decommissioning the arts from the discursive positions into which it has been forced by neo-liberal political and cultural economies.

To recommission something is to give it a new commission or to validate an existing commission. It can also mean to put something back in service, thereby undoing decommissioning. Decommissioning can mean to take out of service or to render unusable; to remove or revoke a commission; or to remove or revoke a formal designation. There are multiple instances and intersections of recommissioning and decommissioning, both material and metaphorical, happening at Frontyard. I am sitting in one of the health centre’s old consulting rooms at a table with metal legs and a wood-grain veneer, which has surely been decommissioned from an institutional interior. From my chair at the recommissioned table, I am looking directly at a decommissioned heater that, design-wise, looks like it dates from the time of the building’s construction, (which Anna-Bella Silva at the Marrickville Council Archives tells me was in 1955).IMG_8681Another more overt example of recommissioning is the Australia Council’s research library, which has found a post-decommission home at Frontyard.IMG_8662.jpgBrowsing its shelves I find a copy of Peter Read’s book Belonging: Australians, place and Aboriginal ownership, the opening words of which ask, ‘How can we non-Indigenous Australians justify our continuous presence […] while […] Indigenous people remain dispossessed and their history unacknowledged?’ (Read, 2000, p.1). It is impossible to write about place in Marrickville (as it is to talk about place in Sydney, in Australia, and in other settler societies) without acknowledging the violence of displacement; in this case, of the Cadigal Wangal people. Read’s question is therefore directly linked to the task I’ve set myself whilst in residence here: to decommission discourses of place – particularly those attached to urban transformation, development and renewal – which efface or negate existing place, and which seek to install or produce places that re-affirm hegemonic agendas. Concurrently, I want to recommission place as a phenomenon emergent from processes of making that (with thanks to Tim Ingold) entail entanglement and correspondence between bodies, senses, spaces, materials and affects, and which are infinitely generative. Frontyard is an example of this kind of place.

language in the landscape

One of the things I enjoy observing while walking a neighbourhood is the names of older apartment blocks. Some of the associations they bring up are unfortunate, like this one, which with its combination of name and spiked balcony design makes me think of Cromwell’s murderous rampage through Ireland and heads on stakes.



Others are in cool lettering and are often poetic or literary. They draw from a different set of references  to the aspirational (‘prime’ , ‘icon’), literal (‘evoke’) or punning (‘divercity’) names given to contemporary developments. Mostly, these new names are all in lower or upper case, as if proper nouns are yesterday’s technology. They are spelt out in shiny, reflective signage which conforms to the charcoal palette that visually dominates Sydney’s built environment these days.

Some older ones can be quite literal, too, in their circumspection:


And many are still aspirational:


But many draw from the poetics of place and the material world, linguistically and in their design.



Sometimes they are named after people, mostly women. Maybe an homage to a loved one of the original developer? Or the name that they imagined for the type of woman who might live there?

IMG_7542IMG_7320IMG_6484IMG_8202One of my favourite genres of building names is those that deploy a particular set of associated place-images to produce meaning and place that are quite remote from the design or the architecture.




Below is my all-time favourite. It is poetic and deeply embedded in the material world at the same time.



rio de janeiro’s Praça XV flea market: the paradox of waste


This is a version of a paper that I gave at the Global Garbage conference hosted by the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis’ (ASCA) Cities Project in Paris last year. It is included in the collection Global Garbage: Urban Imaginaries of Waste, Excess, and Abandonment, to be published by Routledge in December 2015.

At the end of each day, very little rubbish remains on the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s affluent and middle-class suburbs. Through the night and early morning phalanxes of sanitation workers and scavengers, working in both the informal and formal economies, sort and clean up much of it. Some of that rubbish is handpicked and re-classified as waste, and bound for secondary markets where it can be sold and bought anew (Coletto, 2010). Informal and formal secondhand or ‘flea’ markets are a node within this network of secondary economies that generates valuable social, economic, and material infrastructure in cities (Evers & Seale, 2014; UNHabitat, 2010).

From 1979 until the end of 2013, the Feira de Antiguidades da Praça XV set up every Saturday in Rio de Janeiro in an otherwise unused channel of land hemmed in on the sides and from above by roadways. The flea market took its name from a nearby square, Praça XV de Novembro, that is both national monument and tourist destination. The square and the area occupied by its namesake market are incorporated in Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Cultural Corridor’, a central urban precinct geographically demarcated because of its heritage and cultural attributes (del Rio and de Alcantara, 2009). Following Mary Douglas’ (1966) influential formulation, the flea market is ‘matter-out-of-place’ because it is at odds with the official place-image (Shields, 1991: 61-62) of historic, touristic Praça XV, and of Rio de Janeiro itself as an egalitarian, modern metropolis (Seale, 2014). The market’s conspicuous display of waste in the street resists hegemonic projections of what constitutes liveability in urban contexts (Coletto, 2010: 59). This, combined with the visible congregation at the city’s political, financial and cultural centre of market’s community of ‘urban outcasts’ who are usually pushed to the social and spatial peripheries of the city (Wacquant, 2008), is interpreted by some as a failure of urban governance (Hiebert, Rath and Vertovec, 2014). However, counter to the secondhand market’s discursive positioning within the representational and material orders of the city, Feira da Praça XV instigates order in an arena where many assume there is none to be found. The market as a space, a set of practices, and a community reinstitutes order amongst previously discarded objects through inventory, exhibition, and above all, commodification. The vendors at the market are entrepreneurial (Seale, 2014), re-incorporating waste back into circuits of exchange in a process that provides employment and waste management for the city.

We are socially and culturally pre-disposed to view waste pejoratively (Elias 1978; LaPorte, 2000). Some of our rationale for marginalising it may have sound physiological basis. Nevertheless, waste is an obligatory, insistent, and above all, valorised component of global, neo-liberal capitalism. Waste is neither abject, nor excessive; rather it sustains capitalism’s growth. We might even say, as David Trotter does, that in capitalism ‘the success of the enterprise can be measured by the waste-matter it produces, by the efficiency with which it separates out and excludes whatever it does not require for its own immediate purposes.’ (2000: 22) As indications of the status quo, we can look to the existence of a globalised industry whose driver is the management and movement of the catastrophic amounts of material waste we produce, or to the deliberate configuration of products to deteriorate or to become technologically or stylistically obsolete. To be measured successful, such industries and innovations are dependent on generating increasing amounts of waste. The disconnect between waste’s symbolic role and waste’s actualised role in global capitalism is what I understand to be the paradox of waste. Through diagrammatic reference to Feira da Praça XV, I aim to construct a theory of waste that acknowledges this paradox. Continue reading “rio de janeiro’s Praça XV flea market: the paradox of waste”

markets and non-place: haneda airport, tokyo


It’s been 20 years since Marc Augé’s work on non-places, or the spaces of super-modernity, was published in English. The non-place is a space which is ‘formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure).’ (Augé, 1995, 94) In other words, the non-place functions as a conduit for flows of human and material capital; it is negotiated, as opposed to inhabited, and as such it inhibits the development of, or identification with place.


The volume of bodies passing through it leave little impression, and in turn, those who pass through this space are left unmarked by their contact with it. The non-place is ultimately absurd because it is replete with the physical presence of humanity while effacing human inter-relations with the material environment. Jacques Tati in his 1967 film Playtime used the non-place – the airport, the office block, the hotel foyer, the convention centre – to comment on the absurdity of modernity and on the society of the urban spectacle (in a far more charming way than Guy Debord).

In Playtime the contemporary city is an agglomeration of non-places that eliminate the local and domestic, and by extension, the personal and the intimate. Playtime’s opening is set in a space that has characteristics of an airport, yet could be any other non-place where people are instructed by functionaries and signs on how to maximise the efficiency of flows. In this scene, language that is articulated outside the language of the bureaucratic and the regulatory is a global patois, belonging to nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

The airport is therefore a non-place par excellence. With the explosion in global travel, and increasing numbers of people moving through these non-places, airport designers have attempted to make the transit time experience more distinctive or pleasurable without really moving beyond the leisure/entertainment/consumption paradigm. Airports now have cinemas, swimming pools, koi ponds, butterfly enclosures, and giant slides. Some of these are articulated within a discourse of the local; for instance, locally inflected souvenir shops, chain stores, or services – such as a Thai massage at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. On the whole, however, these local iterations are placed within an infrastructure and architecture of consumption and mobility that connotes the global in its design and delivery.

At Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (also known as Tokyo International Airport), the reference point for place within the archetypal non-place is the market. Haneda’s Edo Marketplace models the standard formula of airport consumer culture (shopping and eating) on the intimate scale of a market street in Edo-period (17th century) Tokyo.  Dining options that offer yatai or Japanese street food can be eaten under the Nipponbashi Temple Bridge in emulation of a marketplace experience.


The spectrum of consumer options is typical for an airport, and their presentation is themed as historical, and therefore as belonging to a past urban landscape. However, the small wooden shopfronts with noren hanging at the entrance, and their organisation along narrow alleyways approximates the spaces and scale of the contemporary built environment one encounters in the backstreets of Tokyo’s neighbourhoods like Asakusa.


The market, as it is conceived in Haneda airport, is nostalgic, yet the involvement of architect Yoshiaki Nakamura, a specialist from Kyoto in Sukiya-zukuri design and craft, suggests a serious engagement with the construction of the market’s ‘streetscapes’, rather than merely creating a scene of historical re-enactment.

Edo Marketplace’s deployment of the scale, practices, and spaces of the local market is surprisingly successful in distinguishing Haneda from the average airport. Indeed, the airport’s experiment with place is ongoing through the staging of the festival, the market’s counterpart. The notion of a festival in an airport might seem bizarre at first, but if we think about it, the carnivalesque of the festival, its licenced, topsy turvy inversion of the hegemonic, is completely apposite for such a highly regulated environment.

Works Cited

Auge, M. (1995) Non-places. London: Verso.

Tati, J. (1967) Playtime.

market as refuge

Markets can help establish a sense of place for those who have been violently uprooted from their homes:
‘But perhaps the biggest complaint is the lack of bustle that would naturally accompany a larger population.
“Azraq still needs to get that sense of community,” said Andrew Harper, the top official with the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan.
In addition to the more than 80,000 Syrians at Zaatari, a bustling street market created and run by the refugees has contributed to what aid officials and refugees call a sense of “dignity.”
“The market is where people meet and drink tea,” said Jina Krause-Vilmar, director at the Near East Foundation, a nonprofit organization helping vulnerable communities. “It’s where a sense of community is established.”
The street market at Azraq would go a long way toward relieving the bleakness, but it remains unopened […].’