Last Chance To See: Unsustainable Cities? At The Royal Geographical Society
Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
Des Gould was about to embark on a PhD but then picked up a camera instead. The images that ultimately resulted make up Unsustainable Cities? — a visual essay on urban centres and sustainability. Gould's works question whether cities are sustainable, yet rather than taking a bleak, dystopian view, his images also depict how cities have adapted, both historically and in the present, to environmental problems. There are also some hopeful solutions along the way. This is a highly-thought provoking exhibition, inviting you to study your surroundings and see them in a new light.
Gould travelled to Borneo, the Ukraine, Bristol, Sussex and London to capture images representing environmental challenges and promises of sustainability. His works can be grouped into those depicting the infrastructural and environmental challenges of energy, housing, transport, water supply, pollution and biodiversity, and range from stark landscapes showing disused nuclear power stations and cooling towers, to images focussed on a single, small object. In the latter category is the telling photograph of food allocation forms from a London Food Bank.
A larger scale image shows what might be a mundane block of council flats in Camden, all concrete and rows of square windows; however, it is the home for professionals such as nurses and teachers, whose work is vital to the function and wellbeing of a city's residents. This is contrasted with the colourful, plant-clad sustainable housing in Bristol — creative solutions to urban issues.
Goukd's images are strong and generally need little explanation. The devastation wrought by the Chernobyl disaster and on the city of Pripyat is shown in devastating detail, from the ruins of Reactor 4 to abandoned decaying fairgrounds, classrooms and hospitals. Who will pay for the clean-up which almost bankrupted the Soviet Union, resulting in widespread political change? What happens to cities and their infrastructure when political regimes change?
Bins — an image taken in London showing a typical middle-class home with rubbish bins neatly set out before it, questions consumerism and its by-products. Last Bear Standing depicts a polar bear eating a seal in an environment full of plastic. These are contrasted with a beautiful view of Barnes Wildlife Trust nature reserve — one of the best spots for birdwatching in the UK — and the lush greenery of Camley Street Nature Park near King's Cross — a revitalised urban area making space for nature to flourish.
Some of the images are very abstract, taking advantage of architectural forms — such as those showing the solar panels on the roof of Elmore House, the UK's first inner-city, co-operatively-owned renewable energy project on a social housing estate. Others play with familiar landscapes and scenery, such as the interplay of light and shadow of sailboats moored in the Thames.
This exhibition may change your views of what you see in your everyday urban environment. Most importantly, it inspires you to record and question your environment, whether through picking up a camera or sketchbook.
Unsustainable Cities? is at the Royal Geographical Society Pavilion, 1 Kensington Gore (corner of Exhibition Road and Kensington Gore) until 14 November (that's tomorrow, so get a move on!), 10am - 5pm, free entry.
All images and captions copyright Des Gould.
Last Updated 13 November 2014