Don’t shoot me, but I’m excited about the Olympics. But it’s not the the sport, the architecture or the legacy that’s really got me going. It’s something thats happening now.
The acrid whiff of tar is in the air, roads are closed, temporary traffic lights rigged up and the wrinkled and pitted skin of the roads is being exfoliated ready for a fresh coat of tarmac. Now I hate traffic jams as much as any journalist in the pay of an ex-KGB media mogul, as much as any irate mid-morning radio phone-in caller. But I love fresh-laid asphalt more. So it’s fine by me if this is what it takes to re-skin London. A small sacrifice for miles of fresh, smooth, dark, glistening asphalt, all compressed into a level flatness and rolling on and on to the horizon. It’s the manmade equivalent of the tropical beach or fresh snowfall on a mountain side: virgin and unspoiled. The kind of sublime that we can manufacture, that synthetic kind of unspoiled: the promise of box-fresh stationary, pristine foil packaging, the perfect glossy sheen of a chemical spill made at the size of a landscape.
Practically, what’s happening is that roadworks will be banned across London to stop the capital becoming gridlocked during the Olympics. Utility companies will be prevented from digging along the 109-mile Olympic Route Network. From July to September restrictions will be extended to cover London’s entire A and B main road network. Right now, junction after junction, strip after strip of road is engulfed in barriers, temporary traffic lights, yellow equipment of all kinds of utility that arrive overnight like a funfair, then some days later move on to another encampment leaving something beautiful and sublime in their wake. Somewhere there must be a war room masterminding this operation, choreographing the movement of flatbed trucks, plastic barriers, fold out street signs, diggers, drills, compressors and so on around the city.
I’ve written about tarmac before. About its accidental discovery when a barrel of tar fell off the back of a cart and the slag from a furnace was tipped onto it to mop it up, about its forgiving patchability and about how, when newly laid, it seems so seamlessly perfect to be a Tarmac Eden for a Tarmac Adam. I’ve written how, as stuff that is dredged up from the sea bed, it drive circles around the famous Situationist slogan. It is the beach and the street simultaneously.
What’s happening is nothing less than a gigantic piece of urban plastic surgery, and infrastructural peel, botox and fill: engineered rejuvenation. Maybe it is even possible that all of London’s roads will, for a moment at least, be new. And that sensation of newness, in London at least, is an exotic and alien sensation. London is a city whose surface is scoured with complicated psychogeography. It’s the world capital city of psychogeography, full of Sinclairs, Ackroyds and Selfs wandering its rutted paths and scribbling in the margins. Against this it is such a psychological relief to step onto something the blackest and blankest of slates, a place where, just after the roller has left, it seems that nothing has ever happened. No history, no ghosts, no latent narratives, only a present.
Tarmac is gloopy, thixotropic and starless. It sucks in light like some kind of primordial dark material. Yet its also the default material of pragmatic modern life - the thing that gets laid down where people can’t think, afford or bother to lay anything better.
It’s precisely this dull-and-simultaneously-fascinating sensation that must have motivated Robert Smithson in his Asphalt Rundown projects where asphalt is simply tipped off the edge of a cliff, flowing off the back of a tipper truck down gullies in the landscape like pitchblack lava.
My tip for really experiencing London’s new skin is to cycle. On a bike you feel the road in a visceral way that a car hydraulically insulates you from, and your legs even out. Just like the needle in the groove of a record, a bike amplifies the peaks and troughs of the surface over which it travels. Like the track of a record, the grooves in the road are records of events.
In place of the whoops and yelps of say Mick Jagger or the squalls of Keith’s guitar pitted into wax, the road records the bumps and grids of the city in motion ready to be replayed though its potholes and ridges.
Smooth tarmac is like the deepest of vinyls, the highest of fidelities, a way of experiencing the contours and vectors of the city with crystal clarity. It is, without exaggeration, the most sensual and sleek of urban experiences, the closest you’ll ever get to a dreamlike frictionless glide through space.
Traditionally grandest, flattest, most perfect piece of tarmac in the capital is The Mall. It’s so straight, so wide, so luxurious like a giant red carpet running up to Buckingham Palace. It is in a sense, the Freudian royal road to the unconscious. Maintained like a pitch perfect bowling green it is a piece of ceremonial route that sometimes deigns to engage with London’s wider road network, exceptional in its ownership, colour, condition and use.
Right now these roads remain public, that is at least until they get sold off to sovereign wealth funds, pension funds or whatever other private-sector financial interests the government has in mind for them. But right now, these are still our roads and this is tarmac for everyone and care lavished on the public must be welcomed.
If you’ve ever stepped out of the high gloss of a Chelsea boutique into the cracked decay of a Manhattan street, you’ll have viscerally felt a very different conception of publicness expressed in the materiality of the street. Here, you walk from private spaces of opulent luxury into a public spaces of ruination. It might be scenographic, might add texture but its also deeply troubling, displaying the apartheid distinctions of public and private that characterize America.
A project by the architecture office SVESMI reveals the kind of politics contained in these intersections between public and private. Inspired by Muscovite street scenes where the most expensive of shoes walk on the cheapest of surfaces, they filmed shoes clipping across a variety of cityscapes from Rotterdam to Moscow. The price of the shoes were tagged and the cost per sq metre of the surfaces they walk across labelled. In this ankle down view of the city the difference in value and design between the shoe and ground is not only an index revealing the relative concerns of each city but also set the cultures of luxury brands, fashion, sexual politics in relation to the idea of collective public space of the city.
Maybe then, we should recognise London’s re-tarmacing as something more than a practical project. Maybe the most boring and unglamorous of Olympic related projects and something special in and of itself. Perhaps we should see this spate of roadworks as a particularly bureaucratic form of land art, a form of expression as well as a smoothing of our carriageways. Perhaps too it may well be the last gasp of a particular idea of the city as a public place before any remaining morcels of public realm are digested by privatisation.