Railing Against the Railings

In August 2017 Orwell Society member Carol Biederstadt left her home in the USA to join her fellow members in their visit to the Old Red Lion Theatre’s performance of Mrs Orwell. Chance meant that she found more of George Orwell in London than she expected.


No London Orwell pilgrimage would be complete without a stop in Bloomsbury. University College Hospital on Gower Street, after all, is where Orwell spent his final days, although a modern edifice of questionable aesthetic appeal has since replaced the brick private patients’ wing in which Orwell actually died. (The new structure, in fact, was nominated for the 2006 Carbuncle Cup, a ‘prize’ Building Design awards annually to ‘the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months’.)  Looming nearby is the ominous-looking Senate House, where Orwell’s wife Eileen worked in the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information and from which Orwell drew inspiration for the Ministry of Truth described in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And perhaps of paramount importance to both scholars and devotees of Orwell is the Orwell Archive, housed nearby in the UCL Library.

Keppel Street Malet Street

Extract of UCL map

Perhaps one day early in the war Orwell walked with Eileen to the Senate House and then crossed Southampton Row to deliver his essay “My Country Right or Left” to Virginia Woolf at her home in nearby Mecklenburgh Square. What even some Orwell buffs may not know, however, is that another trace of Orwell’s lasting legacy is currently nestled in an unlikely place in this area, as we recently discovered while taking a stroll past the Malet Street Gardens.

CB20170819_Senate House

Photograph by Carol Biederstadt

Leaving University College Hospital and Gower Street behind us, rounding the corner of Keppel Street into Malet Street,  we were surprised to find our footsteps triggering a string of peculiar clanging sounds of different pitches. Closer inspection revealed the tones to be emanating from the Phantom Railings, a sensor-based audial art installation inconspicuously mounted on the wall surrounding the gardens. A large sign posted on a nearby cast iron gate explains:

The length of wall to the right of this gate is the site of an interactive sound sculpture that uses the movements of pedestrians to evoke a phantom of a lost iron fence. Inspired by the wartime initiative to democratize parks and gardens by removing their railings, the project engages with an ongoing debate about the accessibility of public space. The aim is to bring this subject into question, promoting a critical awareness of the social and spatial history of the city.

CB20170819_Phantom Railings

Photograph by Carol Biederstadt

Like other public spaces throughout London, the iron railings that once surrounded the Malet Street Gardens were removed during World War II; ‘the avowed motive’, according to the sign, ‘was to recycle the metal for munitions manufacture’, although ‘the fate of the railings’, it maintains, ‘is now better understood as wartime propaganda’.

CB20170819_Railings 2

Photograph by Carol Biederstadt

It should surprise no one that Orwell weighed in on the issue, and as the sign indicates: ‘the scrapping of the railings made for what George Orwell hailed as a ‘“democratic gesture”’. In addition to the mention of Orwell on the sign, Public Interventions, sponsor of the Phantom Railings project, quotes him at length on their webpage:

When the railings round the parks and squares were removed, the object was partly to accumulate scrap-iron, but the removal was also felt to be a democratic gesture. Many more green spaces were now open to the public, and you could stay in the parks till all hours instead of being hounded out at closing times by grim-faced keepers. It was also discovered that these railings were not only unnecessary but hideously ugly. The parks were improved out of recognition by being laid open, acquiring a friendly, almost rural look that they had never had before. And had the railings vanished permanently, another improvement would probably have followed. (Tribune, ‘As I Please’, 4th August 1944)

DSC_0905-ret Phantom Railings

Photograph (c) Catalina Pollak

Two walkers, by their offset and distance, will create different effects

Unlike most iron railings removed in London, the railings surrounding the Malet Street Gardens were never replaced, making the location the ideal spot for architect and artist Catalina Pollak’s Phantom Railings. When questioned about her motivation in creating this unique piece, Pollak explained:

My intention through the piece was to make railings visible . . . an object highly contested but mostly invisible to the everyday pedestrian, I wanted to draw attention to [railings], and to the typology of gated garden squares enclosed by them. Malet Street Gardens offered a perfect setup to unfold the argument: it had the original stumps of railings removed during the war. The challenge involved making present the absent railings without rebuilding the fence. The evocative sound of children banging a stick through railings – being a universal image that anyone could relate to – was the answer to it.

Getting the high-tech installation up and working proved to be tricky, however. Pollak says: ‘The complexity of working with sensors and electronics in public space was quite a challenge. I was able to put together an interdisciplinary team collaborating for 6 months to make the project happen. This was back in 2012. The Phantom Railings have returned consecutively in 2013 and 2014 due to public petition’.

Video (c) Catalina Pollak

Phantom Railings returned to Malet Street in June 2017 as part of the London Festival of Architecture. Says Pollak: ‘I decided to re-install it once again this year because of the pertinence to the subject of memory that the Festival of Architecture wanted to address’. The piece will remain on Malet Street until the end of October, and Pollak believes this will be the last time it is installed. Before it is dismantled for good, Pollak will be on site to discuss the piece as part of a walking tour led by Dr. Matthew Ingleby at the Bloomsbury Festival on October 21st. This may be the last chance to see this remarkable and thought-provoking piece of urban artwork, so if you plan to be in London, be sure visit while you can.


By Carol Biederstadt

and L J Hurst

Our thanks to Catalina Pollak

Removing railings


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