The map’s the thing

When invited by Herb Lester to write words about my home town, I decided to talk about aspects of York that most visitors will be blind to – the buildings and spaces that don't appear in guide books or on postcards. The grit between the cobbles.

But while out taking photos for these posts (usually facing the opposite way to the tourists, who were busy looking for "the big church"), I realised that the obliviousness works both ways. There are peculiar details out there that I completely take for granted, simply because they aren't aimed at me, the resident. For example: maps. Oh my, the maps.

I'll gladly stare at a book or go to an exhibition on the mappy history of a foreign city or some ancient battlefield. But it has never occured to me before to actually pay attention to all the maps – and there are a lot of them – on my own doorstep. Until now. 

Illustrated maps, new maps, out-of-date maps, simple maps, historical maps, 3D maps, alcoholic Harry Beck tribute maps. It's all a bit lovely. One of my favourites is a map spread out over the entire city: an A4 relief map split into sections, each located at a different way onto the city walls. Children and easily distracted designers are encouraged to make a crayon rubbing of each one until they've done a lap of the city and got the whole set to make a complete map. Brilliant idea. 

Perhaps it's the walls themselves that add to the appeal of other maps too. No matter what style or age or subject, the constant shape of the city, dictated by the confines of the walls (much like the recognisable watery confines of Manhattan), remains on the map.

One thing I noticed recently about the size and shape of York: if you had a lot of time on your hands, you could neatly fit the walled city inside Regent's Park in London. But York isn't a park – it's a theme park. Vikings wander the twee narrow streets; everywhere is (apparently) haunted; lengthy queues build outside everything from smelly museums to tea rooms. It's essential that you know where you are and how to get to the next ride.  

As a nipper, I had a 1960s map of Disneyland that my grandfather had somehow procured. I've never actually been there, but I spent hours poring over that map, tracing my finger from one illustrated area to the next, working out my route, my imaginary visits. Skip ahead a few decades, and I'm living inside the most incredible map, full of real adventures. I've got my own magic kingdom to explore.

In trying to avoid the tourist trail, I've found myself obsessed with the very essence of it. It seems fitting that an assignment from Mr Lester and Associates should open my eyes to this cartographic gateway.

Thank you Herb.

Written for Herb Lester Associates


Stonebow House

Drab. Depressing. Repulsive. Eyesore. Embarrassment. Soulless. Put it out of its misery. Tear it down. Tear it all down.

Stonebow House puts up with a lot of abuse. Few love it, many hate it. Just a few steps from the picturesque Shambles, all cobbles and beams, this brutalist tower does seem a little at odds with its surroundings. All that concrete just doesn't seem very York, or so the critics would sniffily tell you.

I used to be one of those sniffilers, turning my nose up at this office block/job centre/car park thing whenever I walked by. And then one day – I don't know why exactly – it struck me. It's beautiful. Stonebow House is an Eliza Doolittle of a building, its common-as-muck appearance hiding so much soul and untapped potential.

No, it doesn't "fit". But so what? All these other historical buildings were erected decades, centuries apart. They didn't fit either. But they endeared themselves to the story of the city, earning their place through some kind of urban-evolutionary architectural selection.

What this dilapidated 1960s modernist clunk needs is the same TLC afforded to so many other buildings around here. In the lower levels, a couple of gig venues deliver some after-hours culture, as if the council have solved a soundproofing problem by burying music under tonnes of concrete. Above ground, it's home to the Job Centre, a couple of small businesses and perpetually empty office space.

It's all a bit sad really.

But it doesn't have to be this way. As with most brutalist architecture, this concrete monolith is a blank canvas. It can stay looking miserable and alone, or it could be … anything.

Look at London's South Bank. Not that long ago, it too was a bleak slab nothingness. And then something changed. It started to make an effort. Shops, restaurants, culture, colour arrived. And people followed. It's not hard to imagine something similar working in York. Turn that plateau car park into an open air performance space, turn the abandoned offices into a much-needed contemporary art gallery, the ground floor units into pop-up shops. All it takes is a developer with vision and a bit of bravery from the council.

So don't dismiss Stonebow House just yet, no matter how unhappy it looks. It doesn't need to be put out of its misery, it needs to be awoken. Nothing happens here. But so much could. And should.

Written for Herb Lester Associates