The City and Snow - Richard Porch

The Urban Design Properties of Snow: The City and Snow

Richard Porch reflects on the ability of snow to beautify and alter urban design after uncovering some old 35mm prints taken during the snowstorm of 1982.

I was inspired to write this article after finding a cache of 39 year-old old colour 35mm prints, undoubtedly developed in Boots at some point in the late winter of 1982. Like all old-ish photographs they trigger misplaced feelings about some prelapsarian past only capable of being accessed by the person who took them and accordingly mean virtually nothing to anyone else. Unless there is a shared theme or interest. This said, they triggered some thoughts on how change is manifested in cities and hence encouraged this meditation on snow and the city.

A fall of snow – and it only has to be an inch or two in this country – changes our lives and the way we interact with the city immediately. It works in ways that are a bit like an urban design exercise in changing how a city works at both a structural and a decorative level. On the positive side, it closes roads to traffic that should have been closed years ago and puts a welcome radius on so much right-angled developer architecture. You could say that a really heavy fall of snow ‘wraps’ the city in the way that the artist Christo used to ‘wrap’ his environmentally-scaled artworks. The beauty of snow is that it ‘wraps’ things for you often overnight, only for them to re-appear again sometimes only a few hours later. And all achieved without human intervention, or any artistic sensibility being involved.

A city thus wrapped is still your city – it’s just that it is temporarily hidden from view. Intriguingly, at the same time it does this it changes your perception of it, particularly its spatial qualities (i.e. volume) and your recognition of it. The city seems roomier when there are fewer people using it, perhaps you noticed this at the height of the pandemic, when you were out walking round and pretending to shop for essentials. It can alter your own personal mental map of a city by hiding familiar landmarks and reallocating which roads you can and cannot use. As it blankets the built environment it induces a kind of placelessness, yet it is positively transformative, it offers a fresh perspective. A town may be sheeted in snow, its many North Walian slated roofs now a series of sloping snowfields and the all-prevalent white plastic guttering sagging under the weight of icicles and frozen water. Schools shut as the first few flakes fall and, if the snow warning was dire enough, many workplaces will shut early too. The working day gets curtailed and hence the rush-hour is spread over a longer period. Ok, maybe that’s a disbenefit.

Cowbridge Rd - Jan 1982
Cowbridge Rd – Jan, 1982

Snow, specifically lots of it, brings on a host of short-lived environmental changes, the majority of them desirable for city dwellers. It slows down traffic speeds, closes side roads and reduces the amount of traffic in the first place as folk cancel the commute to work in favour of a day at home. This concept would have been completely alien in 1982 and not just because of the lack of any IT infrastructure either. The only people working from home then were either artists, journalists or people assembling things on a piece-work basis. The post did not get through for a few days as I recall, so payment of benefits by giro cheque did not happen and as letter post was still the most prevalent form of communication being able to send or receive anything too big to go in a letter became problematic. Home delivery by a ragged army of individuals driving white vans enabling you to order everything from food to furniture online did not exist, which was probably just as well. How did we manage?

Snow has an auditory impact too. It lowers noise pollution by muffling what were once noisy streets and forces pedestrians to adopt a cautious, slogging gait which gives them ample time to moan / engage with complete strangers that they would otherwise have ignored. It effectively shuts down all those streets not designated as bus routes because they were not gritted and hence soon became snowed up. De facto it was also kind of democratic. Streets are given back to the pedestrian and the users of public transport. Admittedly the folk forced onto public transport are only using it because it is the only bloody thing moving, but that’s a fine point. Drifts of snow, small and large merge the pavement with the road and swarms up against walls quickly enclosing cars and filling in parking spaces. It redefines available space without the need for a road tax or cones to limit usage. A really heavy fall of snow, of a kind I last saw in Cardiff in 1982 which, if it occurs at night when there is little traffic around, can paralyse a city completely.

That snowstorm of 1982 began, as I remember it, with the lightest, powderiest kind of snow falling on the 7th January and did not stop for 36 hours. At first it fell as a white dust that quickly filled in the cracks between paving slabs. As this was a time just before pavements began to be replaced by crudely laid tarmac strips, all the better to facilitate the ‘cabling up’ of homes, the effect of the snow was picturesque. The slightest breeze made it swirl into diminutive arabesques no more than a few inches high making the cracks between paving slabs the first man-made feature to disappear. Flat topped artefacts such as gate posts or anything on which the snow could accumulate developed smooth, radiused finials. The shape of which reminded me instantly of some sort of baroque ice-cream cone or the nipple of some huge albino giant, depending on my frame of mind. The shape was generated by the gradual curtailing of the snowstorm. Anything like a bin or a box quickly developed a bobble hat made of snow and pegs left on washing lines were converted into what looked like surreal caterpillars knitted in cotton wool.

Snowed in cars - Canton Jan 1982
Snowed in cars, Canton – Jan, 1982

Buildings outside the city centre without a pristine façade made of smooth steel and glass soon developed a moustache of snow attached to each storey that made them look as though they had been the subject of a cake icing exercise. Classical buildings with their superfluity of ornament came out of this very well. Capitals on columns and entablatures all provided the necessary carved-stone nooks and crannies for wind-driven snow to accumulate in. A new and secondary system of ornament fashioned by a capricious wind did the rest. The effect was Gaudi-esque in both its organic purity and its unexpected architectonic drama. Imagine what his Parc Güell would look under a few feet of snow on the Muntaya Pelada above Barcelona. Back in Wales, drab flat roofs covered in nothing more than indifferently applied roofing felt were finally made interesting by being converted into snowfields high above the roof tops. Their urban tundra pitted by the plaintive tracks of birds that hunted for the food needed to keep them alive for another day. Their tracks resembled a kind of negative graffito only rendered visible by the angle and quality of the light hitting the roof. Window cills enabled wind-driven snow to drift up the window making them look like that great visual cliché and one seen on million upon million of Christmas cards, the seasonal frosted up window. 

Remember, this was 1982 and the snaps I took with my little camera would take a week to be developed and handed back to me in a little envelope. You didn’t download them from the memory card onto your PC and ‘improve’ them using some software or other. Although the home computer market was booming (the Commodore 64 was launched in that year) the arrival of the Internet was still a full 10 years away in the future.

The first mobile phone call on an instrument the size of the proverbial house brick would not be made until 1985 on the only network available. So, television was the major source of news, other than local radio. Unbelievably, there were only two main channels ITV and BBC, with ITV totally dominating the ratings war. Channel 4 was only launched in November 1982; perhaps tellingly sales of video recorders rose to 1.5 million and the most watched television programme was Coronation Street on ITV with 18.0 million viewers. Even by 1983 only 6% of homes had access to Oracle or Ceefax and their wonderfully primitive graphics. The home computer industry was being founded on games software and low-level home usage (word-processing and storing recipes, etc) and the unmediated wasteland of social media was mercifully still some way in the future. The Internet had yet to give a soapbox to every nonentity with an axe to grind or a half-baked desire seeded by some influencer’s opinion about some toss or other. So, news about disruption had to spread slowly by landline and hence by word of mouth. Unlike now when there are any number of websites devoted to the weather, in 1982 the most watched weather forecast was to be found after the news on the BBC.

Market Rd Canton - Jan 1982
Market Rd, Canton – Jan, 1982

It was a different world. I look at the 39-year old snaps that I took with an elderly but beautifully designed camera (an Olympus XA2) loaded with 35mm roll film showing depopulated streets full of snowed-in Mini Metros and Austin Allegro’s. The light in them has that dull fluorescent quality which is produced when the snow has stopped falling but it is still heavily overcast. Of course, the lying snow is diffusing the light still further and softening it. It almost inevitably endows photographs taken with an instant nostalgic appeal, a soft-focus grain which makes everything look even older than it is. Snow in paintings often falls back on this effect. Winterscapes painted by Dutch landscape artists in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, during the ‘mini-ice age’, such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525/30 – 1569), Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634) and Lucas Van Valckenborch (1535 – 1597) knew this. The so-called ‘mini-ice age’ lasted from 1250 -1850 and although temperatures only fluctuated by 1 degree globally below where they are now, it was enough to produce the fantastically cold and snowy winters of that period.

As a result, Charles Dickens (1812–70) saw a lot of very white Christmases in his childhood. Would his great seasonal novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) read the same if he had not lived through the tail end of the mini-ice age and had only experienced the mild, snow-free Christmases we get now? If you mentally subtract all his marvellous winter weather descriptions in Christmas Carol and replace them instead with musings on drizzle and mild temperatures, would it have as much impact? Indeed, would we have still gone on to forever associate Christmas with snow? Although poor old Brueghel only did three paintings featuring snow he is doomed to be forever remembered for probably the most famous landscape painting showing it, namely ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565). The painting has no direct sunlight in it either and not a huge amount of snow, but what it does communicate is cold.

Coming 20-30 years after Brueghel, both Avercamp and Valckenborch went on to make a good living out of the Antwerp middle classes by flogging them paintings showing busy snowscapes populated by villagers skating, gathering wood or simply cavorting about on frozen rivers, as if they had nothing better to do. Which was probably true as when winter came to Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, it froze rivers, canals and ports and shut down civic life temporarily. Maritime nations suffered proportionally more. That people could still find ways to enjoy themselves, taken with the levelling of the playing field class-wise, was a subliminal message that contemporary onlookers would have understood. We just think they are out and about because they have been ‘released’ from their day-to-day drudgery by the snowfall. There are telling little reminders though, when one sees a man struggling under a burden of kindling intended for the fire or an old woman washing her clothes through a hole in the river ice, that reality lurks in the margins and that such works are really illustrations and not a simple record, like my photographs.

Library St - snowed in cars
Library St, snowed in cars – Jan, 1982

Avercamp painted many works like this and his ‘Winter Landscape with Skaters’ of 1608 is a good example. Although a deaf mute who lived with his mum all his life, he operated a profitable workshop selling nothing but paintings of snowscapes. Valkenborch painted works showing snow actually falling, which hardly anyone else did, see his ‘Winter Landscape’ of 1586. All were idealised snowscapes even though they were living through a period when long, snowy winters were the norm. The dodgy perspective in some of the paintings gives the game away and tells us they were painted from sketchbooks probably accumulated over the years. Nearly 300 years later Claude Monet produced 18 paintings with snow in them during a snowy winter he spent in Argenteuil in 1874-5.

There is even one with snow falling in it. It is fascinating to see how the technical challenge involved in finding a graphic equivalent for a natural phenomenon like falling snow was resolved in an age before photography and science explained it away and hence destroyed the magic behind weather. The wealthy bourgeoisie who bought such paintings to impress the neighbours would not have known that newly fallen snow is 90% air, for example. These and later genre works by British landscape artists in the late Victorian period provided the template for the snowy Christmas card within its olde worlde setting. I would argue that we ‘see’ our images of winter snowscapes through the prism of Brueghel, Avercamp and Valckenborch. 

Back to 1982. In some photos the gritters have clearly been to work and people have churned up the previously pristine soft pavements into primitive rutted paths. Despoilation of the snowscape has started and a blue-grey slush begins to clog the gutters. What was a sensory delight has become a hazard. You know the end of the ‘snow experience’ is in sight when you cannot find a virgin bank of snow that has not been defiled by someone scooping out handfuls to make snowballs. Even more annoying is seeing they have scraped away sufficient snow to enable them to drive their bloody car off. The roads will soon be reclaimed by the motorist for the motorist.

The trajectory of one’s enjoyment of a significant snow event is stacked steeply in favour of the early stages of the snowfall. That thrilling moment when you throw back the bedroom curtains and discover that the urban landscape has been sheeted in an irregular cover of white. The lack of traffic sounds and the concomitant stillness that prevails is energising somehow. The best of it will last a morning or if you are lucky an entire day before it starts to melt or turns to frozen slush. A heavy fall of snow and what it can do to a city is a randomised example of nature taking a hand in urban design without all the need for public meetings, reports and community engagement. And I think we are all the better for that.

Richard Porch is a regular contributor at Wales Arts Review.