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What the World Cup tells us about peace in South Africa

June 14, 2010

The symbolism behind South Africa’s refurbished national stadium strongly represents the spirit of the New South Africa.

The spectacular Soccer City Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg. It seats 94,700 people.

The centrepiece of World Cup 2010 is South Africa’s refurbished national stadium, Soccer City (Afrikaans – Sokkerstad) in Johannesberg’s Soweto district.

The imagery of this spectacular stadium, its location and the path South Africa took towards not just the World Cup, but also peace, will ensure that this stadium will probably be looked back upon as the most historic since Berlin’s infamous 1936 Olympic stadium.

Built to look like a giant traditional African pot, the stadium sits in one of Johannesburg’s most famous districts. Soweto was the scene of the eponymous uprising against the apartheid regime. When the ruling National Party government tried to enforce Afrikaans language lessons on the English speaking black population, over 10,000 students marched against the government. The government retaliated by shooting and killing 23 students on the first day alone.

The fact the world’s eyes are now fixated on this district once again, but under such a radically different context, provides a stark contrast between the South Africa of then, under apartheid, and now: the New South Africa.

The imagery of the stadium-as-melting-pot, fusing the different disparate people of South Africa into a united people is mirrored in the post-apartheid flag of South Africa: the V or Y shape represents “the convergence of diverse elements within South African society, taking the road ahead in unity”.

The stadium’s cladding represents “earthen colours” and fire, with lights around the bottom representing the heating of the pot, heating which allows the fusion of all the various ingredients. The imagery and narrative of creating a new cosmopolitan and united nation of South Africa out of the many, previously separated peoples, is profound.

The odds of South Africa ever hosting one of the largest sporting events in the world looked million-to-one just a generation ago. The focus for global derision and sports boycotts, how could SA ever put on such an event?

Nevertheless, against all odds the unthinkable has happened and the once boycotted state has made a spectacular turnaround. Now more legitimate and vibrant than ever, South Africa is the host of what is being called the African games, the games are being lauded as a source of hope not just for SA, but the whole of Africa.

We can see that the story of peace in South Africa and its route to receiving the accolade of the World Cup are very much a part of the same narrative.

Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa

Constructing the Stadium, Constructing Peace


An Anglophone Union? Emotion and reality

March 24, 2010

Could a union of English-speaking countries really work? It’s already being called the “next big right-wing political idea”.

USA, UK, Canada and Australia and NZ

The European Union is endemically unpopular in the UK. Brits look across the world and see nations such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as preferable bedfellows in stark contrast to the many and varied peoples of Europe, none of whom have English as a national language.

Those who are opposed to the European Union are constantly reminded of the necessity of European integration in the face of globalisation and the emergence of new powers like China, India, the BRIC countries and other burgening states hot on their heels, such as Mexico.

It is in this light that the pipsqueak nations of Europe share a common sense of density – either they hang together or hang alone in the face of the big, bad world. This sense of destiny in amplified by the fact it’s only recently that many of the small nations of Europe have gained independence following an eternity under the thumb of empires. The experience of WWII also makes so many Europeans value co-operation.

Thus, we should see the EU as an alliance of the inadequate. Europeans must speak with a common voice in the world, or else find themselves drowned out by the bigger boys in the playground.

Nevertheless, together Europe can more than just speak up for themselves, these Europeans United form the largest economic market in the world, and have a combined population of half a billion, that’s two-hundred million more than the USA!

However, the Brits have found it all a bit hard to fathom.

When the UK looks at the world it sees not just the faded pink on the map of the world they conqured, but swathes of the world that speaks its language. The British sees whole other continents they can comprehend. On a literal level the British understand Americans, Canadians, Australians and 49 other countries which have designated it as their official language.

The Anglosphere is an almost global nation.

The British imbibe American culture without even thinking about it. It’s so obvious I won’t even spell it out. The same goes for Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The psychological impact of this is that the British just don’t share the feeling of being a small, endangered nation which needs to club together with the others in proximity to it; the British just don’t have the same felt safety-in-numbers the other nations of Europe acquire from the Union.

Furthermore, the impact of literally being apart from other European nations, the literal separation by the channel, means the UK doesn’t feel the benefits of freedom of movement as obviously. Few British people see spending a day in another European country as effortless as the continentals. Furthermore, when vast tracts of the world shares your language, culture and in many cases, way of life, you don’t see the necessity of European integration. The experience of the World Wars also make the British want to keep away from Europe. Instead we set our sights further afield to the nations and peoples which fought on our side when our European allies (such as the French) were either conquered and occupied, or simply fight against us.

But the ties across the Anglosphere extend to more than just literal ones, ideologically, the UK ‘gets’ the American’s free-market ethos far more, too. Our legal systems are also more similar, with regards the Commonwealth countries. An obvious expression of this would be our shared head of state, none other than HRH Queen Elizabeth II.

I’ll regard the EU as a success when Neighbours is replaced by a Polish soap opera.

In sum, the literal separateness from Europe along with a stronger closeness to the other English-speaking countries means the EU almost violates the key concept of nationalism – that the state (political unit) and nation (grouping of people who share real or imagined common history, culture, language or ethnic origin) should be congruent.

This is not to say that the British want to become the 51st state of the USA, or become a province of either Canada or Australia, rather that the UK would (relatively speaking) be more comfortable with a union of Anglophonic countries – be it under NAFTA with the US, Canada (…and, erm, Mexico!) or through enhanced cooperation with the Commonwealth than it would sharing a political system with the many different and more foreign cultures and nations in the EU.

Some may be quick to paint this as racism or ‘exceptionalism’, but firstly the Commonwealth – and Canada and the USA, for that matter, are far more racially diverse than most European countries.

Secondly, and let’s be blunt – was it racist for South Africans to want to be governed by Africans, not Europeans? Or irrationally racist or exceptionalist for the Irish to want to unify? I don’t think it was. And given the option of swapping the EU for an ‘AU’ I believe the British people would chose an Anglophone Union.

However, we must look at the prospects for turning the emotion into reality.

The English speaking countries of the world are disperse.

An Anglophone Union would be far more than 10,000 miles from tip-to-tip

The UK’s proximity to Europe means that our economic ties to Europe are far stronger. The USA may be our top export partner accounting for 13% of trade, but the following six are European, and their combined percentage is 43%.

Furthermore the the USA’s main trading partner in Europe is Germany, not the UK.

In addition, Australia is deepening its economic and regional ties with China, the importance of this new relationship – based largely on Australia’s mineral reserves and other natural resources – is exemplified by Kevin Rudd’s fluent Mandarin.

Money as a language evidently transcends linguistics.

Australia and New Zealand are probably the best case-study if the impracticality of an Anglophone Union. Two English language countries in close proximity with economic, cultural and legal similarities which have yet to unify politically or economically. Though Australia has made various moves toward unification, New Zealand has repeatedly rebuffed them.

“We intend to keep all of our identity, and more,” Ms Clark retorted to Mr Hewson’s suggestions.

If New Zealand can’t put side their few differences, what hope is there for the rest of the English speaking world? Especially when one considers the vast gulf that exists in terms of political differences between the USA and the rest of the English commonwealth, in terms of gun controls and presidential republicanism.

In addition, New Zealand’s rebuttal of Australia shows that though – and obviously, this is only my hypothesis – the British would perhaps will an AU as an alternative to the EU, would the rest of the Anglophone world want us? Why would Australia, Canada and New Zealand want to return to political or market union with the UK if their economic interests lie elsewhere? Political union would almost be tantamount to a return to colonialism, when one considers their combined population is lower than the UK’s. The current moves towards Republicanism in these countries also shows a reluctance to continue even symbolic connections to the UK, let alone substantive connections.

We return to the status-quo. Though it may be emotionally and perhaps even nationalistically harder for the UK to accept, the EU is more logical, flaws and all.

The Odyssey of London’s Olympic Stadium (more Simpson than Homer)

March 11, 2010

I’m not the kind of person who whines about the Olympics constantly; in fact I’m a massive fan. The entire project is the best opportunity east London’s had in its entire history. Furthermore the entire scheme is currently under-budget (..following a hike in the budget, but let’s forget that) and building work is way ahead of schedule.

Nevertheless, what ought to be the show-piece venue has been subject so many compromises what Londoners have been left with is an uninspiring meccano stadium that currently has no tenable future.

The initial design

The stadium’s initial design (above) was inspired by the human muscle, but since then the design has been scaled back massively. The logic is all well and good, the government does not wish to build a 100,000 seater stadium in London when there is little demand for one. Doing so would risk a Millennium Dome II, potentially straddling the taxpayer with a massive bill for up-keep until a tennent could be found.

Thus, the stadium has essentially 20,000 permanent seats with another 80,000 temporary seats which will be removed following the games.

This is why we have the current, uninspiring, utilitarian design.

Imagine it on a rainy day.

In true British fashion we’ve not quite managed to get that design right, and it’s now got far bigger, unwieldy lights which almost resemble a crown (which is fitting, as 2012 is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – perhaps they can pretend it was supposed to be like this all along?).

But this is besides the point, what is of even more concern for me is that the government is legally bound by the IOC to make the stadium a athletics venue, perhaps as a replacement for the ageing Crystal Palace venue. It was a central plank of our bid for the games – a new athletics venue for London. Of course, athletics never attracts 100,000 spectators (except at the Olympics) hence a 20,000 seater venue. All at the cost of £550,000,000. Half a billion on a mostly temporary stadium. With removable seats that won’t even be used for Glasgow’s Commonwealth games, they’ll just be thrown away. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

But the more one looks into the logic which saw the entire stadium design compromised, the less comfort one can have in the governments ability to organise their way out of a paper bag.

The government has no idea who will take on responsibility for the athletics venue. The plan to avoid a white elephant risks creating a white elephant. Nobody knows who will run this stadium (taxpayer, perchance?).

There have even been vague plans to make the stadium into some kind of educational facility(!?) (Surely 20,000 to a class would fly in the face of Labour’s no-more-than-30-to-a-class policy, haha)

In the absence of a clear plan football team after football team want to take-over the stadium. As a football ground. Not athletics. And this looks increasingly likely to be the case.

There are now serious plans for the stadium to go to West Ham, with them keeping the running track and other athletics facilities for use if and when they are needed.

This is probably the biggest compromise since we became a constitutional monarchy.

We now have to ask ourselves serious questions on why we are building a mostly temporary stadium, at a cost of half a billion pounds only to see it become permanent.

It’s not that there’s been a lack of forethought, the government has simply been thinking the wrong things. This means we’re left with a stadium that looks like a glorified ExCeL centre, a mass of unsightly white tubular metal poles, inspiring.

And a new footie stadium for the Hammers, despite Westfield’s insistence against a football stadium – fearing the calibre of humanity a football match would bring to their brand new shopping centre in the Olympic park.

The whole process is just depressing and shows how confused the authorities have been in going about finding a tenant for the new stadium.

If they’d planned the stadium’s future better we would could have been getting a far more inspiring design.

Bejing's Olympic Stadium, the Bird's Nest

Click here for webcams to see the Olympic’s current progess.

Don’t panic, they’re Islamic

March 8, 2010

I recently stumbled across this remarkable building in London.

Westminster Cathedral, the Mother Church of Catholicism in the UK

Its neo-Byzantine (think Islamic, but in Roman times) architecture belies its real function – that of the central Catholic church in the UK. It’s certainly the most grand Islamic-style building I know if in the whole country, except maybe Regents Park Mosque.

This building set of off on a trail of thought, firstly I wondered what the Swiss would make of the church’s eighty-seven meter high minaret style tower.

Westminster Cathedral took eight years to construct, starting in 1895

Westminster Cathedral took eight years to construct, starting in 1895

Would this beautiful (Christian) building be unconstitutional in Switzerland?

Regardless of Switzerland, it also forced me to consider the current issue of Islamophobia in Britain. One of the lightning rods for this hatred was the furore surrounding the now dead-in-the-water ‘Mega Mosque’ planned for West Ham. This saga has been rumbling on since 1996.

The £100m-£300m Mosque was designed by renowned architects Allies and Morrison, and would have had a capacity of 40,000 worshippers.

The futuristic Allies and Morrison mosque

The rallying against the mosque in West Ham, and the minaret ban in Switzerland are clearly symptomatic of deeper issues within our society and the current, at best, misunderstanding and at worst, outright hatred towards our fellow countrymen and women.

Finally, the building made me realise there’s a degree of irony in that the chair of the Catholic church is an Islamic influenced building, when one regards the history of anti-Catholicism in the UK.

Heritage is heritage, no matter how politically incorrect

March 8, 2010

Each building makes up a part of our city, and together all of a cities’ buildings form a grand and diverse tapestry that inform us of that city’s history. In order to understand our context, history and surroundings we must appreciate each building, every style and all of our landmarks, no matter how much we may dislike them.

There are plenty of examples of cities around the world, and buildings in London, which have been erased due to the fact they don’t fit the current fashion or our current ways of thinking.

One notable example of this is the former parliament of the Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany).

The Palace of the Republic in the former east Germany

The Palace of the Republic in the former east Germany

The Palace of the Republic (Palast der Republik) in Berlin was built in the 1970s, and though it may not win any prizes in a contest for the most beautiful seat of government in the world, it nevertheless told us an important story which is part of not just just the history of Berlin and Germany, but of the whole of Europe.

Its demolition was completed in 2008. I believe the German authorities made a tragic error. It is entirely wrong to try and airbrush the heritage of east Germany from history. During fifty years of separation, east Germans gained their own traditions, customs and ways of life.

Cultural tensions between the former east and west persist, most vibrantly demonstrated by the persistence of the ‘Wall in the Head’ and the current trend for Ostalgie (Nostalgia for the East).

A friend from the old East Germany testifies that many Germans sought reform of their government, not abolition. She herself protested outside the parliament and at the wall for freedom of movement and freedom of speech.

She did not, however, protest for homelessness, poverty or unemployment, all of which are now endemic problems in Germany – especially in the states forming the former GDR. Many east Germans resent the fact their state was absorbed into the West German system with no compromises and no co-option of many of the policies and in fact, rights, those in the east enjoyed.

These current problems facing the east Germany republic, surely explain Ostalgie.

Trabat Car

The 'Trabi' is an enduring symbol of East Germany

Now I am not advocating the re-division of Germany and Berlin, rather pointing out that for us to properly understand history we must understand the lives of those on the other side of the coin. We can’t grasp life on the other side of the Iron Curtain by destroying its remnants.

The former parliament building was relic of east which told us of east German’s lives. From the happy times (my friend recalls fondly visiting the ice skating rink there on weekends) to the more difficult. The parliament was one of the focal points for the escalating protests which eventually brought down the government and was a massively important point in world history, triggering the end of the Cold War and beginning one of the largest waves of democratisation in world history.

This building told us far more about the current issues in Germany, the entire nation’s context, than its planned, pastiche, replacement. How can we understand the present if we erase the past?

The Stadtschloss was demolished to make way for the Parliament. Of course, a historical building in its own right we cannot turn back time - the east German parliament told us far more about contemporary Germany.

The pretext of the demolition was the ostensible presence of asbestos, though it is doubtless the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss will no doubt be far more expensive than any renovation. (Ignoring of course, the fact that many public buildings across the UK and probably Germany are riven with asbestos. I don’t see the authorities demolishing my university or local hospital!)

It saddens me to see the fabric of history destroyed for what are clearly political reasons.

One city that has dealt far better with their communist history is Prague.

The Žižkov TV Tower stands out completely against the serenity and baroque one usually associates with the Paris of the east.

The TV tower was very much maligned by the Czechs, nevertheless proving to be useful for its eponymous function it has survived. In 2000 artist David Černý installed numerous crawling babies on the structure as a temporary, now permanent art work.

Constructed between 1985 and 1992, the TV tower is a symbol of the former communist regime. Picture courtesy of Yoko!

This has proven popular amongst Czechs and adds a whimsical feature to the tower which subverts its communist associations and helped Czechs reconcile the towers imposing nature, while also becoming a tourist draw.

Surely the Germans could have done something just as imaginative with their Palast? They have, after all, retained sections of the Berlin wall, now transformed into the East Side Gallery.

The East Side Gallery, formed from sections of the Berlin Wall. Piece entitled My God help me, this deadly love to survive

Every period of history makes its mark on the present, and in no way is this mark more obvious than in buildings bestowed to us.

We need to look long and hard at our buildings (and ourselves) before we destroy them.

Mexican-American War, 1846-1850; Iraq, 2003-present

May 28, 2009
Colombia leads civilisation; natives flee her advance.

John Gast's 1872 painting depicts Colombia (a personification of Ameirca) leading civilisation - enlightenment over (in the picture, literal) darkness, telegraph lines and trains replace barren empty land, and pastoral farm animals replace wild ones; natives flee her unstoppable 'destined' advance. This is Manifest Destiny

“Righteous but ill-informed people of that day sincerely believed their democratic institutions were of such magnificent perfection that no boundaries could contain them. Such a benevolent Creator did not intend such blessings for the few; expansion was a divinely ordered means of extending enlightenment to despot-ridden masses in nearby countries! This was not imperialism, but enforced salvation. So the average American reasoned in the 1840’s when the spirit of manifest destiny was in the air.”
– Westward Expansion, 1949 – Ray Allen Billington

Shock and Awe in Baghdad, 2003

Shock and Awe in Baghdad, 2003

London’s Skyscrapers – A Tragic Past; An Optimistic Future

May 27, 2009

London is perhaps better known for being one of the greenest capital cities in the world, with over 22km squared of royal parkland gracing its surface, than for having a particularly noteworthy skyline.

Bishopsgate Bombing, 1993

Bishopsgate Bombing, 1993

That said, London’s relationship with tall buildings is a long and uneasy one. All tall buildings in London share a tragic history of bombings, which took place throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s due to the IRA. The City’s Bishopsgate estate was rocked by a bomb in 1993 which caused literally millions of square foot of damage, almost leading to the Natwest Tower’s destruction. It required extensive refurbishment, costing in the region of £1bn. Natwest eventually left, leading to the new tenants renaming the tower. The death toll was minimised by virtue of it taking place on a Saturday morning. One journalist died.

‘Black gaps punched its fifty-two floors like a mouth full of bad teeth.’ – Daily Mail

Bishopsgate, 1993

Bishopsgate, 1993

The Baltic Exchange, now the site of the Gherkin. 1992

The Baltic Exchange, now the site of the Gherkin. 1992

The Canary Wharf estate has had several lucky escapes. Once when an IRA bomb exploded on the nearby South Quays estate in 1996. Two people died. (This bomb literally shook my house, I recall everybody talking about it in primary school the next day.) Another bomb closer to the estate failed to detonate.

BT Tower bombed

BT Tower, 1971

The BT Tower’s top-floor restaurant closed permanently following a bombing.

The newest additions to London’s emerging skyline, such as the Gherkin are also tainted by this bloody past. The Stirling Prize winning tower sits on the site of the Baltic Exchange shopping centre, destroyed by the IRA in 1992.

The future of London’s skyscrapers looks bright, however as that chapter of British history now looks firmly closed thanks to what looks to be an enduring peace in Northern Ireland.

Despite a reputation for architectural serenity when compared with fellow leading cities such as New York or Tokyo, the construction of the  HSBC/Citigroup Towers in Canary Wharf (2002) and the more famous, if shorter, ‘Gherkin’ in the City (2003) broke with this tradition, giving London’s few, now ageing, skyscrapers some company.

Londons three tallest buildings... but not for long.

London's three tallest buildings... but not for long.

The sky-rocketing property prices prior to the economic downtown lead to a glut of new projects. The economic downturn has lead to the suspension of several of these projects, but the good news is most of the noteworthy developments continue, and have moved from architects drawing boards to the building sites.

Of course, this new generation of skyscrapers continue London’s tradition of nicknaming her proudest buildings.

My joint two favourite (and tallest) skyscrapers under construction are the Shard of Glass aka the London Bridge Tower…

This will be the tallest building in western Europe (Russia will maintain the title) standing 310m high (1017ft)

This will be the tallest building in western Europe (Moscow will maintain the title) standing 1017 ft high (310m) it will be the first to break the 1000m barrier in London.

..and the Helter Skelter or Pinnacle, only time will tell which name Londoners choose to Christen it.


Set to stand at 288m high, this tower dominates two of London's iconic skyscrapers - 70's masterpiece Tower 42 (bka the Natwest Tower) and Foster's 2003 icon the Gherkin - both pipsqueaks in terms of Skyscraper height at just 600ft and 591ft respectivly. Construction is set to be completed late 2012, early 2013.

Astonishingly, 2009 will see more steel being used in the construction of the Shard of Glass than the entire Olympic Site (source: Financial Times, March 16 2009).

As the Olympics draws ever closer it looks like London has more than just a brand new Olympic Park to show off – it will hopefully have a whole new skyline.

For a full summery of London’s planned skyscrapers visit Skyscrapercity.