A Whirl of Wonders: Urban Pleasurescapes in the Twentieth Century
London is in the throws of a dizzying pleasure revival. Its major landmarks and public spaces are being transformed by a growing appetite for new and thrilling ways to consume the urban environment. From London Eye, a 135-metre revolving observation wheel on the Southbank, to the looping red tower of Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit in Stratford, the lines between architecture, sculpture and thrill ride are increasingly blurred. The proliferation of urban novelties in contemporary London and other cities reveals a collective desire for a more embodied experience of the modern city, for engineered multisensory spectacles which might reconnect us emotionally to a landscape often characterized as anonymous or dehumanized. But Londoners at the turn of the twentieth century were no less hungry for exhilarating sensations. Rather than delight in playful interventions in the everyday urban environment, however, they flocked to new kinds of purpose-built pleasurescapes: exhibition grounds, rooftop winter gardens, observation towers and amusement parks packed with the latest vertigo-inducing riding devices.
This paper explores the appeal of kinesthetic pleasures – of giant thrill machines, fast flowing crowds, towering iron and glass structures and spectacular landscapes viewed from above – which transcended age, gender, and class boundaries, attracting people from all walks of life in vast numbers. The popularity of these experiences suggests that the commodification of vertigo has played a key role in defining urban pleasure in the twentieth century and highlights a theme which has been largely neglected in cultural and architectural histories of the modern city.
Josephine Kane is British Academy Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Architecture at the University of Westminster, London. Trained as a design historian (Royal College of Art / V&A), her special interest is the relationship between the experience of pleasure, modernity and the architectural landscape in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain. She completed AHRC-funded doctoral studies at The Bartlett (UCL) in 2007 and was shortlisted for a RIBA President’s Award for Outstanding PhD Thesis in 2008.
Her recently published book, The Architecture of Pleasure (Ashgate, 2013) presents early amusement parks, and the mechanical thrill rides they contained, as a key component in the experience of urban modernity. Josephine is a collaborator on the Vertigo and the City project, and a founding editor of Architectural Histories: The Open Access Journal of the EAHN (European Architectural History Network). Outside academia, Josephine has worked as a Live Interpreter for Historic Royal Palaces, and taught at heritage sites and schools across the UK.