The series Palimpsest presents London as a chaotic and evolving system by portraying buildings and neighbourhoods during transformation and contrasting them with their usually eclectic context. The photographs reveal different visual layers of historic development, interrogating the architectural approach of each generation, their response to physical and financial obsolescence, and their common vision and understanding of how cities should evolve.
Palimpsest refers to a writing material – such as a parchment or tablet – used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased, or something – an object or location – having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface (Merriam-Webster). A similar phenomenon in painting is called pentimento, referring to the reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist (Merriam-Webster).
Cites can be conceived as a palimpsest. The concept is a useful metaphor to illustrate the traces of time created by the chronological change of grain and superposition of urban layers. The series Palimpsest documents several construction sites and contrasts them with their usually eclectic context, portraying temporary vistas and views of layers that will remain visible, and some others that will be hidden or disappear. This contraposition accentuates the temporal and fragile condition of the built environment.
Urban regeneration and renovation are deeply linked with the palimpsest concept. Buildings and infrastructure must face physical and financial obsolescence. Their fate – renovation, transformation or demolition – will be defined by the ideological, cultural, political and financial context and convictions of different generations. The city becomes a manuscript which is constantly being modified in a non-linear and often chaotic way, or – to paraphrase Michel de Certeu – a patchwork quilt that reflects the views, opportunities and challenges faced by different generations.
At its best, urban regeneration and renovation address the obsolescence of the built environment by uniting a desire to preserve history and collective memory with innovative solutions that solve community necessities, avoid gentrification and preserves – or restores – the natural environment. At its worst, the old city is wiped out, replacing vernacular and modernist architecture with standardised buildings that create sanitised neighbourhoods without any memory or identity. The series documents and explores both extremes.
The construction industry is one of the most polluting in the world. Concrete alone is the most destructive material on earth, and the most widely used substance on the planet after water (The Guardian). The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) estimates that 35% of the carbon lifecycle from a typical office development is emitted before the building is even opened. The figure for residential premises is 51%. How we face the development, obsolescence and renovation of our cities will have a huge impact on the future of the planet. What we build today will inevitably become obsolete. Are we thinking enough about how our buildings and infrastructure will face their deaths? How can we make cities evolve in a more sustainable way? Who are we designing cities for?
London’s skyline is changing rapidly and dramatically, displaying an increasingly eclectic blending of ages, styles, uses, materials and heights. As a financial centre and global metropolis, London has seen in the last decades a dramatic increase in property prices, feeding real estate speculation and polarizing conflicting views on how the city should evolve. A relaxation of planning regulations – particularly on permitted heights – has perhaps accentuated this process. The photographs of the series capture this spectacle of constant conflict, negotiation and flux, documenting the clash of vernacular and standardised, the formal and informal, the finalised and under-construction creates noise and confusion. The photos, in line with Francisco’s work, portray cities in an abstract form, with grey and neutral skies and little, if any, human interaction.
Seen in the context of the global pandemic – although several photos were made before this period – the series obtains additional significance. During the pandemic – and especially after lockdowns – the noisy landscape of London leaves an uncanny silence. In this context, the series puts the noisy overlay of palimpsest in contrast with the apparent state of abandonment left when everyday human activities stop, decontextualizing the present approaches and paradigms and presenting a new perspective that questions the function of architecture and cities.