One city, 100 kilometers, 100 portraits. Start: the most famous map shop in London. End: the Thames barrier. GO!
“SpiraLondon” is an attempt to reconnect to the city of my childhood. For the past 6 years I’ve been living abroad, first in the United States and then in Japan. Exploring the nooks and crannies of foreign cities — from Budapest to Beijing, from Detroit to Tokyo — has become my favourite pastime, inspiring me to embark on a doctoral degree in urban planning. Upon returning to London this summer, I realized that I knew my own hometown least of all. Not only did I feel disconnected from the city — and all that had changed in my years of absence — but I felt increasingly distant from my own memories and experiences there. By losing touch with London, I felt I had lost touch with my own childhood and how it had helped shape the person I am today.
On my first day back, I mapped out a route to (re)discover the city of my youth. Inspired by the Situationist concept of “drift” or “derive,” I decided to roam through the city in a random, free-flowing manner, allowing myself to explore both familiar pathways and unfamiliar neighbourhoods. I chose the abstract shape of a spiral — a symbol of London’s melting pot — to determine the broad trajectory of my route, but avoided any specificity as to streets or sites that I would pass along the way. My route unfolded in real time, without the aid of GPS technology (hello paper maps, goodbye iPhone).
At the heart of “SpiraLondon” are the Londoners I met along the way. I wasn’t interested in doing an architectural photo essay of the city; I wanted to capture a portrait of the city through its inhabitants. One of the first people I met along my journey told me that, “it’s not the city that’s changed; it’s the people walking through it.” That credo guided me over the next hundred kilometres, as I explored everywhere from Brixton to Battersea, from Hackney to Holloway, from West Hampstead to West Ham.
The walk ended up surpassing my wildest expectations. Not only did I rediscover the spectacular urban landscape of London, with its Swiss cheese array of historic and modern neighbourhoods, but I also rediscovered the city on a more profound and personal level. I bumped into a class mate from primary school; I walked past the boat house in East London where I had rowed as a child; I even befriended a random Japanese man in Regent’s Park who turned out to be from the same remote part of the country where I had lived the previous year (and we had a mutual friend!). The characters I encountered along my walk are a testament to the vitality of the city: heavy metal rockers, art students, war veterans, fashion models, police men and even smurfs. It is to them that I dedicate this project; without them, SpiraLondon would not exist.