Rippling water catches the light; a woman blends into the darkness before her; decaying leaves peep through a netted-fence; darkened-silhouettes dance across a tarnished wall. Sem Langendijk captures abstract scenes — mostly devoid of people — while wandering between structures and open-spaces in London’s Docklands: shiny, hostile landscapes, oozing superficiality and wealth.
These are fragments of the pseudo-public spaces or POPs (Privately-Owned Public spaces) slowly consuming London’s urban fabric. Covert environments that appear accessible, but, beneath their sheen and lustre, are governed by the regulations of the corporations and individuals to whom they belong. POPs are a global phenomenon; they arrived in the UK in the 1980s with Canary Wharf and the Broadgate Centre, and continue to overwhelm the capital.
“While photographing and entering these open areas I was told taking pictures was not allowed without certain permissions, and I got sent away numerous times for being there with a camera”
Langendijk did not set out to investigate the prevalence of POPs when he first came to London. Rather, he was exploring the areas surrounding the city’s former docks — the third chapter, titled Perimeter, of a three-part series, which he began in 2015. The Docklands project delves into the regeneration, gentrification, and privatisation of water-front areas in Amsterdam, New York, and London, and is now available as a beautifully-designed, self-published book.
“As I began to research more, however, I observed how the development of POPs in these areas reveal elements that run through society,” says Langendijk, referring to the redevelopment of London’s waterfront and the hostility latent in the POPs that populate it — a hostility towards certain groups of people in particular, which reflects the soaring inequality of a city increasingly divided by wealth and class.
In London’s POPs, private security guards linger, CCTV cameras observe, hostile architecture (slanted and segmented benches, spiked windowsills and pavements) avert — subtle elements designed to deter those who are unwelcome: rough sleepers, political-demonstrators, and anyone exhibiting behaviours deemed inappropriate.
“There is nothing that makes it clear when you enter these urban spaces. This makes them interesting to photograph but also challenging because there is no clear demarcation”
To the unknowing-eye, POPs may masquerade behind landscaped gardens and water features, free wi-fi and table tennis, but for those unwelcome, they are deeply inhospitable spaces. This hostility was tangible for Langendijk and affected him directly: “While photographing and entering these open areas I was told taking pictures was not allowed without certain permissions,” he says, “and I got sent away numerous times for being there with a camera”. Photography is one of the many activities prohibited in pseudo-public spaces — alongside protesting and rough sleeping. These are regulations enforced by those who own the land and only revealed at their discretion.
“There is nothing that makes it clear when you enter these urban spaces,” Langendijk continues. “This makes them interesting to photograph but also challenging because there is no clear demarcation. I used different visual aesthetics — light and shadow — to create a sense of unease.” His images are painterly — dark and devoid of life. Their abstraction subverts the strictures that define the spaces they depict — strictures, which have squeezed out the spontaneity and community that shape other parts of the city. “Cities can be a melting pot of different people,” continues Langendijk, “it is something unique to urban space, but these spaces are filled with suspicion”.
The work reveals the phenomenon of POPs in a subtle way: capturing these largely invisible spaces and the atmosphere of inhospitality that pervades them. Perimeter is compelling at both a conceptual and aesthetic level, displaying Langendijk’s ability to crystallise the intangible into stills that are simultaneously beautiful and revealing.