Some scenes from the “technosphere” (2012-17)

In the Anthropocene era, as humans have become the dominant force on the planet, we have also accumulated a lot of stuff! Thus, scientists recently discovered that all objects on Earth created by people add up to an astoundingly large figure. How large? According to a new study described in “Live Science”, the estimated mass of every bit of urban and rural infrastructure, every vehicle and machine, every device and construction on land, sea and in the air, every piece of technology, and all the garbage in landfills, is approximately 30 trillion tons. All of these objects are collectively known as Earth’s “technosphere.”

Buildings are the most common features of this technosphere. In the following series I have collected a few examples from travels in the last five years, photographed in settlements ranging from around 100 people (Rougemont in Switzerland) to over 20 million (the agglomeration of Mexico City). The oldest building in this collection is the church in Rougemont, dating from 1080. The newest is the Fondation Louis Vuitton (FLV) art gallery in the Bois de Boulogne on the edge of Paris, designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2014.

When I was a child I sometimes thought that being an architect would be fun. Having looked at thousands of buildings over the years, on the whole I’m glad that I can’t be blamed for the ugliness that abounds. But there are of course also many impressive and attractive buildings.[1]

Stockholm has a fair share of interesting infrastructure, often reflected in the waters of the lakes around which the city is built. I have been there many times since my first visit in December 1980, when I realised how cold and dark a Scandinavian winter can be. The technosphere of the city stretches from the narrow streets of the “Gamla Stan” (old town), past a number of imposing palaces, parks and churches to smart residential zones often with indoor markets or malls. Public transport includes the “tunnelbana” (underground), buses and some new tramlines as well as a network of ferries sailing between the islands and into the archipelago to the east.

Close to the centre on Skeppsholmen is the “Moderna Museet” (of modern art). There are often exciting exhibitions and a fine permanent collection of paintings and sculptures including a bath of bubbling mud. We visited the museum in August 2012 and to introduce these notes on buildings I thought a picture of light would be appropriate.

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Few cityscapes are as dramatic as supersized Jakarta. It has been steadily expanding upwards as the settlements sprawl ever further across Java from east to west and southwards. To the north is the Java Sea into which the city is slowly sinking under the weight of its buildings.

On several visits between 2009 and 2012 I stayed at the Marriot Hotel, just around the corner in the jet-setting business district from the Danish Embassy (which is on the 26th floor of a huge skyscraper…). Like many countries, Indonesia is plagued by various fundamentalist movements and the hotel has been bombed twice! Security checks to get in have become extremely rigorous, but once inside the staff are the happiest, smiling people on the planet, doing their utmost to assume airs of normality…

There are some fantastic views from the top floors of the hotel too. The last time I was there I took a picture of a new flyover highway being built in front of the Kuningan shopping mall. Will this road have reduced traffic congestion? I doubt it…

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Provence and the Côte d’Azur are overflowing with beautiful locations and lots of fine buildings. We’ve been to the region for several holidays and taken the bus a couple of times to the small town of Villefranche-sur-Mer to stroll and admire the harbour. There is a very stylish row of houses with bars and restaurants on the quayside.

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A lot of water has flowed under the bridges between my first visit to Bangkok in 1993 (en route to Cambodia) and my latest visit in 2014. Each time I’ve been to city I have tried to squeeze in a trip on the Chao Phraya River. The bustle, noise and heat of the downtown zones are oppressive, but there are fresh breezes on the river and lots of boats of all shapes and sizes buzzing under the bridges. The views towards the temples and palaces are good and it is possible to hop on and off river buses to explore. Watching the Thais and tourists interact is fun too!

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It seems that property prices are going through the roof (sic) in San Francisco, where the info tech revolution is endlessly booming. Examples of creative construction are easy to find in the city, ranging from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Coit Tower. We stayed in the Mission District at Easter in 2013 and particularly enjoyed the skyline viewed from Dolores Park.

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With a population estimated at 21.2 million there’s always some construction going on in Mexico City. It seems that there are always some killings too. I would like to explore more of the metropolis and the country, but am discouraged by the regular reports of violence.

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Despite a favourable location beside a sheltered bay and with sandy beaches stretching northwards, Maputo the capital of Mozambique doesn’t boast many attractive buildings. The tropical rain and winds seem to be destructive too, so that many high-rise blocks look worn and run down. Maintenance appears to be a problem, causing the residents to abandon some buildings or to survive without services such as water and sanitation. After a meeting at the Ministry of Finance in downtown Maputo in 2013 I took a picture of one of the many slightly dilapidated apartment blocks.

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It is funny how buildings can become largely unnoticed backdrops to everyday life. Kings College Chapel is a good example. As a child and teenager growing up in Cambridge I passed the spectacular towers regularly but rarely gave them much thought, except at Christmas when it was fun to join the queue outside to get the best seats in the Chapel for the “festival of nine lessons and carols.” Enjoying this service has probably been my main concession to English religious ritual over the years. I have often tuned in on the radio and listened to the recitals and the soaring sound from the building transmitted across the airwaves. The Chapel looks impressive from “the backs” as well as from Kings Parade in the centre of the city.

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A massive cathedral completed in 1250 dominates Ribe the oldest town in Denmark. It is quite a surprise to go inside and find modern mosaics, stained glass windows and mural paintings above the main altar. They are by Carl Henning Pedersen and depict Biblical stories.

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Every self-respecting medium and large sized European city has a cathedral. Like Muslims with their great mosques, Christians have been keen to demonstrate the power of their God by erecting enormous halls for worship. Lausanne is no exception; a gothic style cathedral completed in 1235 dominates the hilly city. I went there on a freezing Sunday in January 2015 to hear a choir and an orchestra perform Mozart’s Requiem. Hundreds of people packed the nave and were blown away by the powerful voices and sombre melodies.

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Lyon is a large and attractive city with lots of interesting buildings including a Musée des Beaux Arts. In May 2015 we stayed for three nights in an airbnb on the fifth floor of an apartment block close to the centre. In the Croix Rousse district there are a series of unusual hidden passageways or lanes – called “traboules.” These were constructed for silk weaving businesses and were used to transport the fabrics under cover down to the Saône River for shipment. We took a look and some pictures. It seems that the silk trade has been a significant source of income and employment in the city on and off since the 4th Century.

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The organisers of meetings I attended in Washington in May 2015 had not been able to book any accommodation in the central District of Colombia (DC) itself, so I found myself staying for several nights at the Sheraton Hotel in Arlington (VA). The meeting rooms were on the 16th floor, from which there were some extraordinary views of the capital and in particular the US Air Force Monument and the Pentagon. It was odd to look up from discussions about sustainable development and gaze across at the heart of darkness, the nerve centre of US military obsessions. Also visible in the picture (bottom right) is a slightly tumbledown building which is a top-rated Ethiopian bakery and restaurant serving excellent food!

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From the train window heading south from Montreux along the Rhone valley it is just possible to glimpse the 12th Century castle at Aigle. I was keen to get a bit closer, so I got off the train and went for a long walk through the nearby vineyards. There are not many such archetypal historical buildings in such magnificent surroundings; the Lonely Planet guide to Switzerland has Aigle Castle in pride of place on the cover. There’s a wine and vineyard museum inside the castle as well as the usual range of turrets, ceremonial halls, dungeons and so on.

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Way back in the mists of the early 1980s I was a regular visitor to Zürich. The financial affairs of the peace organisation I worked with for several years were in the hands of an old Swiss conscientious objector who lived near the city. We met to balance the annual statements and to ensure smooth international transactions using a special accounting system. Zürich seemed to be the right location for discussing money matters. I got to know the city a little and I like riverside walks along the Limmat, where there are many stylish houses, several churches, parks and tramways. This photo was taken during a short visit around sunset in November 2015 and shows the Fraumünster Cathedral which has stained glass windows by Marc Chagall.

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Every year a winter musical festival is organised in the Swiss town of Gstaad, patronised by wealthy expats, exiled royals, dignitaries and other celebs. I visited the town in January 2016 and after enjoying lunch in a smart restaurant, was directed to the tiny village of Rougemont where a piano recital with young Polish performers was due to take place in the 11th Century church. Rougemont is just across the “röstigraben”, in the French-speaking region of the country.[2]

I arrived at the church a couple of hours before the concert and found the musicians were tuning up. Some of them had been staying in the building; somewhat unexpectedly there were sleeping bags, electric kettles and clothes strewn about. Anyway I settled quietly into a corner and listened to a free concert for an hour or so, leaving before the official proceedings began!

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The Alhambra complex on the edge of Granada is enormous and full of potential angles for artistic photography. It is also very crowded, as it is rated one of Europe’s top attractions; even in February there are long queues for touring the main buildings. I took lots of pictures and have decided that a shot of stars decorating a ceiling suitably reflects the cosmic glory of the red castle!

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Some years ago somebody in La Paz had a brilliant idea about how to improve urban transport in mountainous settings and the result was “mi teleférico” (a cable car network). The city has one of the world’s most extraordinary locations, in a long valley stretching down from the Andean Altiplano at over 4000 metres to what is called “la zona sur” at around 3500 metres. The tower blocks, houses and other buildings as well as roads cling and wind and curve and crawl up the hillsides, such that the cityscape is a rippling disturbance of juxtaposed colours, styles and spaces.

The cable car system that has been built from one end of the city to the other provides commuters and visitors alike with magnificent vistas across the rooftops and highways towards the mountains. Sitting back and contemplating or conversing while peacefully swaying in a cabin is an ideal means of getting around. ¡Que bueno mi teleférico!

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The technosphere in Paris is made up of a flourishing and fascinating central core, surrounded by bleak and ugly suburbs (for the most part). A good impression of the contrasts can be obtained by taking the RER (regional express) train from Roissy CDG airport to the centre of the city. Before the line goes underground near the Boulevard Periphérique, the cold, harshness of poorly designed, cheaply built and badly maintained high-rise housing dominates the views. It isn’t surprising that people riot from time to time in these “banlieues défavorisées.”[3] Then emerging from the station near the Jardins de Luxembourg, the characteristic avenues lined with five to seven story buildings covered with elaborate stonework, wooden shutters and intricate iron balconies stretch in all directions. In these central “arrondissements” it is easy to appreciate why Paris is synonymous with style.

Architects seem to have been encouraged to go a bit crazy in French capital, starting in the 19th Century with the Eiffel Tower and continuing with the Centre Pompidou in the 20th. The latest addition to this “experimental mode” is the gallery of the Fondation Louis Vuitton (FLV) in the Bois de Boulogne. In February 2017 we joined thousands of people crowding into the building to see an exhibition of impressionist paintings. While the artworks on loan from Russian collections were interesting it was the remarkable waves of concrete and glass that filled most mental space!

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The Chinese imprint on the technosphere is growing rapidly. In Dar es Salaam there are large numbers of Chinese toiling on construction projects. Some of them live in a barracks across the road from the Danish Embassy. Further down the street I spotted the sign below and had a good laugh… But I also wondered why the national lingua franca, Swahili, was ignored.

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The final picture in this series was taken in the Garden of Dreams in Kathmandu. The Himalayan city is congested and chaotic. But in the middle of the madness is an oasis of peace, a well-kept garden with lily ponds, tree lined paths and flowerbeds. During an assignment in June 2017 I joined some colleagues for a meal at sunset in the restaurant overlooking the garden. Unfortunately I was lost in daydreams when I went down some steps and fell awkwardly, spraining my ankle… The following day I flew home, hobbling painfully through a transit stopover in the technosphere of Istanbul airport.

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[1] A book of 70 questions about architecture by Jonathan Glancey (What’s so great about the Eiffel Tower? 2017) gave me some inspiration for these notes. He explores contrasting views of a whole lot of architectural wonders, including the influence of Le Corbusier, the Great Pyramid at Giza, la Sagrada Familia (Barcelona), the Taj Mahal in Agra, and Stansted Airport!

[2] The fried potato dish called ”rösti” is a Swiss classic, but belongs to the German speaking region rather than the French. Hence the ”graben” or fault line between the linguistic zones.

[3] By chance I wrote these notes more or less at the same time as the citizens of London were grieving for the dead in a high-rise building blaze that killed many low-income residents due to negligence and failure to adhere to construction regulations.

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