Borrow, build, abandon

A haunting new photography exhibition captures an Olympic legacy abandoned.

Jamie McGregor Smith has a thing for empty spaces.  In the past, the British photographer has taken his camera to derelict environs as diverse as Detroit’s auto factories, Laybourne Grange’s abandoned lunatic asylum and Stoke-on-Trent’s forsaken pottery industry. He documents the decaying, the crumbling, the once useful  - now forgotten.

Recently, it is the un-peopled post-Olympic structures of the 2004 Athens Games that have attracted his attention. In a new project titled Borrow, Build, Abandon – now on display in London – he turns his gaze on the city’s failed exercise in legacy planning; a site that now sits almost entirely disused, accruing disrepair - a home for rogue vegetation, graffiti, even drying laundry. As journalist Helena Smith wrote after a visit last May, “Athens's Olympic park, once billed as one of the most complete European athletics complexes, is no testimony to past glories. Instead, it is indicative of misplaced extravagance, desolation and despair.”

McGregor Smith’s documentary series explores this legacy of destitution: “Eight years after the games came to a close,” he writes. “Only three of the 22 Olympic stadiums, built at a cost of $15 Billion, are currently in public use, the remaining requiring an annual £100 million in upkeep costs.”

Lessons on Olympic legacy, highlighted by the Barcelona and Sydney games, were shadowed in Greece’s case by pressures of completion and a delayed three-year construction timeline. Caused by political intervention and government elections, this rush for completion allowed little thought for post game usage and trebled its construction budget.

In  of our own moment of post-Olympic splendour, it’s no surprise that a photographer of Smith’s disposition was drawn to Athens. The product of political floundering, budget cuts and a lack of foresight, the buildings are a government’s failing embodied, and an example of what McGregor Smith calls industrial entropy – “the forces that effect the transition and the decay of matter and energy in a broader sense, evolving economic trends and industrial stability – a change that is natural and unavoidable.”

He further elaborates:

In the years of sovereign debt crisis, these white elephants of peer pressured national pride, much like the factory shells in defunct industrial cities, are testament to humans continued failure to comprehend inevitable entropic social change. We need to consider the possibility that all human construction in the future could have the technology of functional adaptation.

The work hopes to achieve an appreciation of aesthetic architectural qualities, in cohesion with their contextual relationship to the societies they were constructed for and by. In the cases of abandonment the effect of their power, achievement and status on human landscape, equally exaggerates their failure, in the context of their functional disestablishment.

With Boris Johnson at the helm of the London Legacy Development Corporation, permanent tenants secured for seven of the eight Olympic venues and a promise “to promote and deliver physical, social, economic and environmental regeneration in the Olympic Park and surrounding area”, legacy planning is undoubtedly an issue that London 2012 has enthusiastically addressed.

And yet these portraits – stark, unyielding, silent - are a curious reminder of an evolution that is often beyond our control. We can build it, but can we master it? We’ll wait and see.

Borrow, Build, Abandon: Athenian Adventures in Concrete Steel is Jamie McGregor Smith's first solo show; now on at the Print House Gallery, 18 Ashwin Street, London E8 until 3 October.

 

(All photographs courtesy of Jamie McGregor Smith)

An olympic stadium in Athens sits empty. (PHOTO: Jamie McGregor Smith)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage