PUTSPACE at Unruly Landscapes (18-19 June 2020)

Written by Tauri Tuvikene and Jason Finch

In June 2020, Tauri Tuvikene (Tallinn University) and Jason Finch (Åbo Akademi University) reflected on the connections of public transport and landscape at a conference on “Unruly Landscapes. Mobility, Transcience and Transformation” organised by CeMoRe at Lancaster University and the Centre for Mobility and Humanities at the University of Padua. Landscape as a topic and way of seeing has a long history in geographical, architectural as well as artistic scholarship. In light of the new mobilities paradigm, non-representational theory, posthumanism, the digital humanities geohumanities as well as work by visual artist, the conference found ways to see landscapes as different and counterintuitive – as unruly.

The pioneering virtual conference tried out various ways of hosting presentations and discussions entirely online, using Zoom for live discussions, including its chat feature for organising the Q&A sessions. Participants posted video presentations beforehand which were transmitted on the day. The conference was also the occasion on which the formal relationship between the two centres for mobility studies was established, paving the way for future cooperation.

The conference papers are preserved online as they were shared with participants on the day, another new direction made possible by the online format. Tauri Tuvikene’s and Jason Finch’s papers can be found in their entirety alongside the conference’s other presentations at “Unruly Landscapes. Mobility, Transcience and Transformation”.

Tauri Tuvikene presented a paper on landscape approach to urban mobility infrastructures. In the talk he argued that, when compared to an analysis of the politics of infrastructure, a landscape approach can more fully reveal the intersection of cultural and natural, the ideological representations of past, present and future, the importance of community organised around real and imagined infrastructures and the ways in which embodied practices take place and create place.

The paper looked into a planned but never realised high-speed tram project in Lasnamäe, a socialist housing estate in Tallinn, Estonia, that remained half finished after the end of the Soviet Union but is yet home to more than 100,000 inhabitants. Positioned in the middle of an arterial road cut into limestone – which one can see in an episode of this year’s Christopher Nolan blockbuster Tenet – the infrastructure has remained a dream. It exists now as an unfinished project: a wasteland in the middle of that road, mixed with some partly completed elements. Nevertheless, the unfinished infrastructure is accompanied by persistent and occasionally reviving urban imaginations by transport planners, local residents and politicians. Thus, the tram is present and absent at the same time.

A sketch of a pedestrian overpass at Lasnamäe, Tallinn. Note trams in the middle.
Hess & Metspalu, “Architectural Transcendence in Soviet-Era Housing”

The presentation suggested that the landscape approach reveals different physical as well as narrative layers—including natural, cultural and political ones—of urban infrastructures, conflicting lenses of urban planning and the continuous synchronisation of different systemic and practice-based rhythms in landscapes. The landscape approach gives a nuanced and attentive understanding, revealing elements that are easily forgotten in usual accounts of urban projects. Such projects are not only modernist or capitalist imaginations but in different ways intersect various layers of urban and non-urban, different representations, community imaginations and embodied experiences, nicely captured by an artistic performance by Anton Polsky and Aleksandra Ianchenko (“Waiting for the tram”). 

“Waiting for the tram” – a perspective from the tram tracks.
Photo: Tauri Tuvikene

Jason Finch examined how public transport networks function as means of social exclusion as well as inclusion. The disappearance of London’s immense electric tram network in the middle of the twentieth century represented no straightforward moment of progress.

All night tram outside Tooting Broadway Underground station (1938)
Photo: Topical Press
London Transport Museum

Methods from spatial literary studies can productively read non-fictional texts, Jason argued. His main primary materials comprised memoir texts by a working-class Londoner and tram enthusiast recalling the last nights of certain tram lines on the urban periphery before the trams’ replacement by trolleybuses (in these cases, in the late 1930s). Combined with official statements by the head of London Transport – following the 1933 government-driven merger of the London tram operators with London Underground, the company that operated the city’s metro system and some suburban railways – these memoir texts illuminate definitions of modernity related to public transport as public space. Unlike nostalgia-driven images of the last nights of the tram generated by cinema newsreel reports, enthusiast memoirs recount acts of violent disturbance on the trams’ last runs, also showing how tram enthusiasts kept presenting tramways as the embodiment of modern public transport, despite London Transport management claiming that they were outmoded

Literary studies techniques of close reading use both of these aspects, the disorder and the alternative future projected by the tram enthusiast, to question orthodox views of twentieth-century British history. Jason ended by indicating ways in which these points merit further development: investigating how authority operated around the tram network; exploring the aesthetics of the tramway as conveyed in realist painting of the period. Considering views of literary London, a mobilised alternative to prevailing stratigraphic views of relationships between different zones and periods also emerged.

“Sunday Morning, Farringdon Road” (1929) by Cecil Osborne
Art UK