Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
A new project in London tries to send that message through a playful, interactive installation.
In the early 1940s, in the name of the war effort, the British government ordered citizens to tear down the tall, black railings that surrounded London's many private gardens. Cast iron barriers were cut from all the city's exclusive parks, supposedly bound for munitions factories and then, in another form, to the Continent. George Orwell hailed the removal as a "democratic gesture."
Formerly private gardens like Russell Square spent several years during the war open to everybody. At the close of the war, as property owners tried to put the railings back up, Orwell and others defended the newly public spaces of the city. Those who had owned the city's parks prior to the war accused the writer of advocating thievery.
He responded that the "so-called owners of the land" had stolen it centuries ago, and that the fallen railings marked a step towards making amends. "For three years or so the squares lay open," wrote Orwell, "and their sacred turf was trodden on by the feet of working-class children, a sight to make dividend-drawers gnash their false teeth. If that is theft, all I can say is, so much the better for theft."
Some gardens returned to private hands and retreated behind locked gates. Others were bought by the city or by public organizations like universities. Some remained private but open to all.
But, says London-based artist and architect Catalina Pollak, the alloy that made up the railings was not suitable for munitions, and the railings proved useless to the war effort. She suspects the government used the war as a pretext to open up the spaces of the city - how could they accidentally claim tons of useless iron alloy? "It cannot be possible that they did that without knowing," Williamson told me. "If that were the case, why did they take the railings down and not, say, the tram-line rails that weren’t in use?"
Pollak's new project with the group Public Interventions aims to bring that history to light -- to remind Londoners that nearly all of these green spaces were once off limits to all but a privileged few.
She has virtually resurrected the railings on one side of the Malet Street Gardens, a small Bloomsbury garden that was private until it was bought by a university in the early '50s. Phantom Railings uses motions sensors and speakers to play the familiar rhythm of a stick running along an iron railing, with the sound adjusted for the speed and proximity of the passerby.
Around the corner, a board explains the history of the public and private nature of the city's gardens, and the fences that delineated one from the other. The placement of the board is subtle, she says, and not everyone reads the critical history. "But everyone engages," she says. "Children, well-dressed businessmen looking a little uncomfortable…" For proof, see the video below:
The project opened on July 31 and will last until mid-October.
All images courtesy of Public Interventions.