Deepa Naik & Trenton Oldfield (coordinators of This Is Not A Gateway) reflect on the forthcoming festival with Tim Abrahams (Blueprint Magazine). 

'The Glastonbury of Urbanism' (published in Blueprint online on 15.09.10)


From the series Mapping the Zone, Ignacio Acosta, 2010

The third annual This Is Not A Gateway Festival takes place from 22 to 24 October at Hanbury Hall in London.  Alongside the general open call the festival will include activities from across the globe that interrogate and propose new futures for those areas that are variously known as financial districts or central business districts or even Downtown. Here we interview Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield about the Festival. The images that accompany it are just a small selection from those which can be seen at the festival.

What would your ideal goal for the festival be?
We started organising the annual festival out of a catalogue of frustrations with the status quo, along with a set of questions ‘on cities’ we were personally setting out to explore.

Each October we get to attend the event we wished existed but could never find. What we were looking for and what we hope we have created is a space where politics and being political isn’t feared, where people from different disciplines want to meet and learn from each other, where the questions being asked are critical and interrogative; a space where festivals and conferences are turned upside down. We wanted a festival where women are leading the debates, where the financial outlay is tiny, and where the exhibitions are provocative.

Female (Open) Space Invaders, Marisa Gonzalez

What kind of atmosphere does the festival have?
We sought to create an atmosphere which was genuine and rigorous (rather than pretentiousness and speculative); a space where participants can take advantage of other critical minds exploring a set of seemingly unrelated and disorganised topics with unexpected results. Afterwards – when digesting the festival – we would like it to ideally feel like one has made a handful of new friends and engaged in challenging conversations with strangers. We want to celebrate the pursuits of the contributing artists, and leave people wanting to read more, organise more and discuss more. The ideal goal for the festival would be that after attending you are not the same but you want more.

You have said in the past that you set up the event and the publishers because you felt that emerging urbanists and other inter-disciplinary thinkers weren’t getting a platform. Why do you think this is?
There are the obvious gates or barriers  that ‘the urban industry’ has attempted to place in front of us including; extremely poor educational leadership and teaching throughout urban disciplines, predominantly in architecture where there is a lazy focus on aesthetics rather than on politics. There is also an obsession on promoting cities as centres of everything commercial (innovation, trade, creativity etc) and an ignorance about the injustices of urbanization (greed is good), the stomach dropping costs of attending conferences (exclusion) and the failure of these events to represent or reflect any city we have ever known (prejudice).

Female (Open) Space Invaders, Marisa Gonzalez

As a result of these circumstances, we think the more critical thinkers and actors were unknown to the status quo (who were likely enclosed in a self-referential network). It is also fair to say critical thinkers could metaphorically be perceived as ‘persistent mosquitoes’ un-wantingly buzzing around the ears of bankers, bureaucrats and bulldozer drivers. They would much prefer us to ‘just piss off’, go away and not bother them.

Ring of Steel, Henrietta Williams, 2010

Have these other thinkers been ignored solely because of their political views? Or is it more complex than that?
There is a fear of politics and of being political. This fear quickly self replicates and flattens out the perceived inefficiencies that politics raises. It is most obvious in educational institutions and the public events that ‘the urban industry’ undertakes.  In architecture schools, students are often taught by recently graduated students who are not academics and who have limited professional experience – this is an insular circuit that produces architects who might do workshops on housing estates or design house extensions. The London Festival of Architecture, for example, is little more than a corporate showcase; an expo not held in a convention centre but on the streets of London. Where could politics exist in these contexts?

Do you expect banks to pay any attention to your very critical approach to urbanism? Is there anyone more obsessed with themselves than corporations – banks and developers? They are already paying attention to the project, first by rejecting it, by removing it from their island and placing it ‘outside’. But the festival is not for the bankers, even if it looks that way, the work is for us to see what we know about these spaces and importantly how we know these urban spaces.


Ring of Steel, Henrietta Williams, 2010

Tell us how the festival will work within the chosen venue?
From the windows of Hanbury Hall we can see the financial district move towards us – in just 10 years it has jumped from Bishopsgate to Commercial Street and now to Brick Lane. Hanbury Hall is where the word ‘strike’ was coined; it is where the ‘match stick ladies’ from the Bow matchstick factory would meet in order to address their terrible working conditions. This is understood to be an important milestone in the development of unionized work forces in the UK. In a state of neglect, our repairs have postponed its sale and redevelopment in luxury flats.

Perhaps the developer we met to discuss using empty floors in a tall building was right to fear we would arrange a “Glastonbury type festival”?  The three day event is everything you would expect a large festival to be – except this will be small, contained in one building, centred around discussion (rather than music) and every wall space available will be used to exhibit work and show films. A teashop will keep hot tempers cool and brisk walks in and around the financial district will warm people up. It will run from 10am to 10pm each day. Over 1200 people are expected, some areas do have limited capacity. Funding has been sought to digitally record and upload the discussions online.

How has the festival changed since it first launched?
It hasn’t really changed. It’s much the same.  We plan to do only five festivals. The 2010 edition is the third one.

Ring of Steel, Henrietta Williams, 2010

Why have you chosen to focus on Financial Districts themselves?
More about our motivation for focusing on financial districts can be found on our website (http://thisisnotagateway.squarespace.com/2010-statement/).

In one regard the power structures operating in a Financial District are very obvious. Big banks in big buildings. Why do you feel that a more sophisticated or complex reading is necessary?
Did you know that inside these big banks in large buildings is a world the vast majority of us haven’t bothered to understand? Apart from the glorious art collections there are spatial codes we outside of the protected financial districts have never experienced. This includes the logic of office layouts where a computer allocates people a different desk each day, where ‘ejection seats’ exist for those underperforming, and psychometric tests are required just to have the ability to work there.

A big bank, previously, would have a vast building to protect its cash and gold reserves (or pretend to). Now walls have been replaced with glass and people replaced with computers; despite not needing protection they are now protected more than ever. The financial districts we have studied are likely to have more to do with the financial districts of Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Moscow.

In another regard, they are by definition exceptional places, unlike the rest of the city? Can they really be analysed as indicative of forces operating throughout the whole city?
Absolutely. We think a contemporary interrogation of these spaces, by a spectrum of disciplines and approaches, is vital as the current crisis of capitalism can be traced through ‘financial service centres’. See our website (http://thisisnotagateway.squarespace.com/2010-statement/) for more information.

Tell me more about the pink shirts.
We have always been compelled by financial centres, both in terms of their urban fabric and morphology, though also by the people that inhabit them during the working hours and then leave them empty, wind-swept and silent during the weekend. The argument is that the city (Corporation of London) is under-studied, debated and observed, particularly by urbanists.


Pink City, by Nanna Nielson & Trenton Oldfield, 2006

In the summer of 2006, we noticed that there was an abundance of men in the city wearing pink shirts under their suits, which seemed to play heavily against the idea, be it a cliché, of these chaps being bullish in character, that they act/work without emotion, that money and numbers predominate their ethics.

We wondered if on the contrary the city runs on entirely on emotion, as ‘confidence’ still dominates decision making. Confidence’ is an acute emotion. As a publication from Bloomberg puts it: “Confidence is good, but over confidence or false confidence has been the key cause of every severe economic and financial crisis”.

City Pink (a collaboration between Trenton and Nanna Nielsen), was a small project to explore this idea; that the men we photographed are not  emotionally barren but perhaps highly emotionally intelligent and that their everyday work requires and demands an acute emotional awareness

Pink City, by Nanna Nielson & Trenton Oldfield, 2006

The project was a result of a hunch that the city was over confident, that a crash was likely and probably imminent.  Research into the shirts revealed that pink was the colour chosen for the first aristocratic sport hunters. Somehow hunting traditions has made their way from the upper levels of the countryside into the financial districts of the world; certainly in London.

You call it a festival rather than a conference. Why is this?
It is fair to say that in some ways it was an attempt to attract the easy distracted. A festival seems to suggest potentiality, the possibility of something new or unexpected to emerge, a certain openness.  A conference seems to us, at least, as limited, focused and bureaucratic. Festivals also contain a spectrum of activities– in our case there are many different disciplines, people and agendas coming together. Alongside discussions, there are performances, exhibitions, film screenings, walks & tours, reading groups and workshops. It is also a celebration of the coming together of ‘wayward sheep’.