London, Under Reconstruction

There’s a fine Japanese short story by Mori Ogai called “Fushinchu” (“Under Reconstruction,” 1910) which describes the discomfort of living in the city when it’s being extensively re-built.

I was reminded of this story on a recent walk around London. Everywhere I went there seemed to be men in yellow jackets: knocking down buildings, unloading trucks and pouring concrete. Eventually I was forced to recognise that all this frenetic activity was the most prominent feature on the street. Unless I included it in my shots I’d not be telling the truth.

However, there’s a problem here. If I were to photograph builders doing all the things they normally do, I’d end up with pictures that would look as if they’d been commissioned by a construction company.

Their Own World
Construction workers live in their own world. They are usually confined to a building site which is fenced off from the general public. They labour long and hard, then they remove the hoardings and there — suddenly — is a brand new building ready for occupation. The workers then move to another site and do it all over again.

If the street photographer ventures into the constructors’ world the result is the corporate-industrial photo. Sometimes a great candid shot emerges (for example, the much-reproduced image of men eating lunch on a steel crossbeam, high above the streets of New York, taken by Charles Ebbets in 1932) but that’s an exception. You need permission to get anywhere near the action — and permission has to come jointly from the construction company, the architects and the owners of the building. Street photographers are not in the habit of seeking permission.

My featured image (above) shows how I solved the problem. I simply took a candid picture of a construction worker ducking his head to walk under a narrow and very ancient passageway. The contrast between the size of the figure and the narrowness of the passage says something about how the modern world is too big, too dynamic, too aggressive to be constrained by old buildings. It makes you wonder: will this man supervise the destruction of the “Lamb & Flag”? One hopes not, but you can never tell.

I hope London succeeds in finding the right balance between preservation and regeneration. The latter can be alarming when you see it happening, but the alternative — too much preservation — can be stultifying to the life of the city.

New Kid on the Block
There was opposition when the misleadingly named Edwardian Group wanted to replace the famous Odeon Cinema West End with a ten-storey block consisting of a hotel, spa and a two-screen cinema. Permission was given and, at the time of writing, there’s a 30-metre hole where the original cinema once stood. People take turns to stare at it open-mouthed through a tiny viewing window.

“That’s where I saw ‘Lord of the Rings,'” I heard one onlooker say, a little wistfully.

I took a quick snap (above), just to show you what it looks like.

Moving around the site I found two other onlookers marvelling at the crane (below). That’s one way to tackle the existence of construction work: get some reaction shots of people who’re taking an interest in what’s going on.

Personally, I think the new building on the south side of Leicester Square will be magnificent. It will probably put the rest of the square to shame so that buildings on the other three sides will need replacing, too. That’s what happens when a city’s “under reconstruction.”

My favourite shot from my walk around Leicester Square’s big hole is this one (below) of the man on the gate. His job is to supervise the constant flow of trucks entering and leaving the site, bringing liquid concrete for the foundations of the new hotel complex.

The man was taking a break and looking in my direction, probably wondering if I’d cause any trouble. He later asked me, politely, to keep to my side of the barrier. After all, I belong to the other, non-construction world of pedestrians, onlookers and passers-by. I plan to keep it that way.


In this blog I occasionally refer to my favourite Japanese writers, but I usually keep to the conventional western habit of reversing the Japanese word order so that the family name comes last instead of first, as it does in Japan.

I’ve not done that with Mori Ogai (1862-1922) because not many people have read him in the west, despite his sublime story “Takasebune” (“The Boat on the River Takase,” 1916) being translated eleven times. (OK, not very many people…)

Lieutenant-General Mori Ogai, who once worked as an army surgeon, was born Mori Rintaro and took various names for his poetry and short stories. With affectionate reverence the Japanese call him “Ogai.”

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