In the summer of 2010 I spent a week in Ludza, a town in the east of Latvia, close to the border with Russia. The town is unlike the rest of Latvia – it might be geographically in Europe but its soul felt more Russian. A week can feel like a lifetime, or just like a second. I walked the dusty streets of the town for day after day, trying to make sense of a part of Europe both alien and extremely familiar to me. The gardens reminded me of the allotments in the UK – mostly long and thin and devoted to fruit and vegetables. It was the height of summer and the greenery was lush and everyone spent their time swimming in the lakes. But I carried on, mapping out the streets of the town by walking them again and again, making photograph after photograph of the houses, trying to identify what drew me to this place. It’s impossible to grasp the sense of a place in just a week. It’s impossible not to gain a sense of a place within a week. These photographs don’t pretend to reveal; any great truth about Ludza, instead they are the culmination of a week spent walking and looking –they are about how a town might be looked at through foreign eyes.
David Wyatt 2010
Thames Town: China’s New Suburbia
On the outskirts of the ultra modern city that is Shanghai sits a recently developed satellite town that will appear both familiar and slightly peculiar to any Western tourist visiting the area. This is not because of Shanghai’s mixed architectural influences of France, Britain and China either, no, this small town is known as Thames Town and is a specially designed living and commercial space in the style of a little England.
Thames Town is one of a number of new European themed model towns built around Shanghai as part of the local governments ‘One City –Nine Towns’ plan. This plan was hatched out of the population boom being experienced in Shanghai. In the past 15 years the population has increased by 8 million and the landmass it covers has increased from 100sqkm to a staggering 680sqkm. Despite this growth Shanghai is still four times as densely populated as New York.
Demand in China for this suburban style of housing has risen out of the development of a new economic middle class, defined by Euromonitor International as those households with an annual income of between 60,000RMB (£6,000) and 300,000RMB (£30,000). Whilst China has purportedly 106 billionaires, it is this new middle class or “middle stratum” as the Chinese officials term it that is the centre of a huge amount of the economic change currently underway in China. This new segment of Chinese society amounted to 80 Million in 2007 according to Euromonitor International and they predict it will top 700 million by 2020. The most important purchase for many who have this newly found economic means of freedom is their own house. As recently as a quarter of a century ago, under the regime of Chairman Mao, all property was state owned so for the current generation of Chinese home ownership is a new concept. Today in cities such as Shanghai it is widely regarded that a man must own his own house before he can find a bride.
Thames Town and the many similar developments popping up throughout China appear to be the future image of a suburban China. That the development appears eccentric to western viewers is as much a product of our own cultural stereotypes as of any fault of the architects. Vast suburban style housing will surely become more and more commonplace in China over the next 20 years as the population gains more financial freedom.
David Wyatt 2008
Since the fall of the Hoxha led communist regime in the early 1990s, Albania has endured a turbulent time adapting to a more western approach to society. One of the major barriers to entry to the EU, a long-term goal of Ferdinand Xhaferri -the Minister for Integration with Europe, is the pollution levels found in the built-up areas of the country. 20 years ago cars were a rarity reserved only for state officials and those on government business but today nearly every family has adopted the Western European approach of at least one if not 2 cars per household.
The problems faced by the society as a whole are magnified in a few select ex-industrial areas outside of the main cities, the worst of which is the situation at the old chemical factories in Porto Romano, 5km North of Durres, Albania’s main port city. During the communist times, Porto Romano served as a base for the construction of leather tanning and pesticides factories. After the fall of communism, the state shut down the factories but during the great social upheaval, nothing was done to decontaminate the region from the dangerous chemicals needed in the mainly Russian and Chinese technologies used during the manufacturing processes. A report published in 2004 by the Albanian Ministry of Environment along with the World Bank states the levels of HCH and Lindane present on the sites of the former factories as being hundreds of times over the limits permitted in EU nations.
Families have moved down from the mountainous northern region to try to gain work in the port city of Durres. Settlers in Porto Romano have lived around the abandoned factory buildings for the past 8 years, despite regular attempts by NGOs and the Albanian government to move them on. The main problem with their living quarters are that they are built with contaminated materials scavenged from the derelict factory buildings. The UN Environment Programme designated this site an environmental disaster area which posed “grave risks to human health, groundwater and the marine habitat” in a survey conducted in 2000. Until 1992, the Porto Romano factory made use of a range of hazardous chemicals, including chromium-VI, which is used in leather tanning, and lindane, a pesticide many countries have banned. The last of the plants there was shut down permanently in 1998.
Little is known about the long-term effects on the families who are living around this pollution, except that the chemicals remaining are up to 100 times EU limits and many are highly carcinogenic. This work seeks to record the conditions these people live under and the lack of development in the area despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign investment entering the country to relieve these conditions. If Albania desires membership in the EU, they must begin to tackle these issues head-on and make a real effort to relocate the people documented in this work.