London is divided and united by its river; one of few cities in the world to find its essence in two profoundly different, yet nearly touching, urban characters. So the Thames provides the perfect vantage point for telling the most comprehensive story of this complex city.
London Calling talked to Matteo Pericoli about his intensive 20-mile journey along the river, from Hammersmith Bridge to the Millennium Dome and back again to create two 37-foot-long pen-and-ink drawings depicting the city’s north and south banks, a dozen boroughs, nineteen bridges and hundreds of buildings, including the Houses of Parliament, Tate Modern, Battersea Power Station and the London Eye.
London Calling: London Unfurled has to be one of the most exciting and innovative publishing projects of the last year and quite a long time in the making. How long did it all take to get together?
Matteo Pericoli: Well, it began sometime in the middle of 2009. I came to London to practically see London, because - fortunately or unfortunately - I’m a complete outsider. I didn’t know London then, nor do I know if I even know it now. So I started to work on something that I thought would be just a project that was commissioned to me rather than what happened with Manhattan Unfurled - that was a natural thing.
LC: So there was a project plan of sorts from the beginning, even if you didn't know the end direction?
MP: I didn’t know what the end project was going to look like because I didn’t know London’s profile, or its character, or the river, which is the viewpoint we chose.
On the other hand, because of my experience with Manhattan Unfurled, I knew what the format was going to be as well as various aspects of the bookmaking phase. As for the rest, I had to start from zero. It was very exciting, but the “before” and “after” are such different animals. I thought I was simply going to apply what I’d learned working on Manhattan, but instead it became an incredibly more intense and different project than I thought. When you don’t know a place and you have to come up with something that synthesises it, something that will tell it to people who don’t know it, or who know it very well, you learn an amount of things that I don’t know how to describe, it’s a mystery.
LC: A mystery about the city?
MP: About the city, about the feel and look of its details. In fact, the revelation, the moment when I realised that this was much more than just another project, much more than just another work, happened in June 2010. I had just finished drawing a few 100 metres to the right of Blackfriars Bridge when I came to London to meet with the publisher. I arrived at Blackfriars Station from Gatwick. I vividly remember looking at an area of the skyline to the left of Blackfriars Bridge and recognising every single detail of a city that I didn’t know before. To the right of Blackfriars, instead, I saw a line set physically onto the city, which was separating a landscape that I’d never seen before (to the right of the line) from the one I had just drawn. This imaginary line kept moving along with me while I drew and this process is one of the mysteries that makes me feel like I know a lot about the city, but at the same time I know deep down that I don’t know enough - it’s a funny line.
LC: Was the Thames always your first choice in terms of a concept for London, or did you have any other ideas originally?
MP: No, I think it was always the Thames. Each city has its own way to develop and grow, like an organism that takes over an area for whatever reason; something almost natural and organic, not something forced.
Then there is always the interesting relationship created by an objective natural obstacle (e.g. a river), which is a perfect viewpoint to record what happens when something ends, to see what happens when something has to switch into some other condition. There may often be main routes or main roads that could have a similar effect, but the river is the perfect viewpoint from which to take a little bit of a distance and measure, with your senses, what happens when two pieces of a puzzle want to engage each other but can’t; when two pieces of a puzzle are pushed away from each other and things like rivers or natural obstacles are left by chance. It almost feels as if they came after. Whereas, of course, they are the generators of the city’s structure. The perception of a city comes before its physical structure and this is something that I’ve been realising more and more.
LC: Tell us about your background? Is it design, is it art? Because you don’t just suddenly arrive in town with the ability to draw an entire city from both sides of an iconic river!
MP: I studied architecture and I grew up in Milan. I grew up in a city that I believe has a difficulty with the issue of identity. This is what I always felt. I was never clear myself about how it articulates it, but it’s something that was always present when I grew up there. I studied architecture and the use of drawing was always an extra tool, a tool necessary to both understanding and communicating. My “second birth” was when, after my studies in architecture, I moved to New York in 1995. I decided to move away from the baggage of history, from the past itself, and see what happens when you get rid of all this.
I went to New York as an architect hoping to work as one for a few years. I worked in some offices, including at Richard Meier’s where I worked on the Jubilee church that was being built in Rome. I loved it and I learned a lot, and one of the things that happened when I was working at Richard Meier's studio was that I started to do freehand drawing more and more.
Contrary to what I expected, freehand line drawings were essential in the design process at Richard Meier's. Plus, coming from Italy, I had an incredible desire of understanding what Manhattan was really like. When you’re too close to a place you don’t understand it. You go from one place to the other on the subway, underground, without ever grasping the whole. It’s like living with someone in the same room, all the time. So how do you get to know them? By stepping away.
It happened one day, I kept going back and forth from my home to the office on my bicycle - it was about 7km - and I recall the need to ride along the edge of the island, almost trying to ride my bicycle on the water. I wanted to step away and see. So one day I took the Circle Line, which is the least known New York experience, meaning that no New Yorker would ever go on a Circle Line. The moment the boat moved away from the shore, I had one of those moments of revelation. This is the viewpoint that would allow me to calmly understand what happens, from here to there. What’s here, what’s there. It was probably a desire that I had cultivated for years and never found a way to satisfy.
I’d often sketch buildings and entrances, but never found the right “key” to unlock some kind of mechanism that would reveal to me what the city was really like in its entirety.
There is always some objective system that keeps you from making too many arbitrary decisions and thus allows you to “solve” everything. Each Circle Line took a while. I spent a lot of money because it’s very expensive and I got very bored of the guide talking and saying the same things. But at the same time I was taking many, many pictures and began the slow process of drawing and putting it all on paper. The initial idea was a project for children: to convey a drawing that was clear and simple and playful. The work method never changed, but the length and the obsessiveness of the work became the philosophical idea of a different project.
I began to wonder: What is a skyline and how does it change? How does it work? How do you perceive a city?
LC: You’re obviously right in the middle of this now, so is that a year’s work of promoting the book and working on it, or have you already got your eye on another project somewhere further down the line?
MP: This is an interesting time, as you mentioned. The work is done. It’s the beginning of the next phase - it’s strange, emotionally. So I’m trying to enjoy this as much as I can, which for my silly character is not that easy, but I’m learning. Before I began London, and between all the projects about Manhattan and this, I was kind of concerned about repetition. I’m realising that the repetition and the obsessiveness necessary for these projects have some other hidden purpose that I probably don’t have very clear in my head now. But I’m discovering and learning how we have come to build these urban landscapes.
The London adventure has been totally new to me and this is a positive surprise that makes me want to go onto the next one. Which one it will be is unknown to me because it could be as far away as Asia or South America or I might end up closer to where I come from, which worries me because it helps to look with fresh eyes.
LC: So one final question, there’s a lot of momentum around these projects and interest on the internet. Will you ever be open to the idea of actually throwing that out to the other people to vote, to invite you to their city, or would it have to be a connection that you had with a particular place?
MP: No, no, on the contrary. I love the fact that the connection is created by the learning process and outside input. Had I not gone to New York, it could have been London, or any other place in the world. Or vice versa: I could have moved to Italy had I been from elsewhere. Had I not gone away at all, I would probably not have unlocked this curiosity.
When you live in a place and you do not doubt or question the things that are around you, you lead one kind of life. Once you leave, the desire of learning automatically arises in you, and it’s very important.
With the international eye increasingly focused on London in the build up to the 2012 Olympic Games, London Unfurled is a great reminder of the sheer scale and variety of modern London as seen from the banks of perhaps its most iconic landmark. London Unfurled is published by Picador, and is available now priced £25.00
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