Semiotics is defined as ‘the study of signs and symbols [regarding the] use and representations’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2017) of objects. The London skyline, has become the signifier representing London as a diverse metropolis, creating familiarity primarily aimed at tourists. Hence, London is portrayed as an ‘embodiment and symbol of urban organisations by existing and past actors’ (Appert and Montes, 2015: 1). The levels of embodiment of buildings is illustrated through the incorporation of the old and new displayed through the diversity of skyscrapers, buildings and statues. These are located throughout the city of London constructing an ‘objective’ reality of what London appears to be. Through the London skyline, London has been represented as a global symbol, represented as a complex metropolis filled with history and commerce. Therefore, London has become a ‘circuit of culture’ (Hall, 1997): a metropolis which produces ‘representation, consumption, regulation [and] identity’ (Leve, 2012: 1), evident through the distinctive buildings of Cabot-Place to the Tower of London. The signifier aspect is reinforced ‘objectively’ through media imagery and language, signifying London as a metropolis filled with history, affluence and wonder. In this essay, I will provide the argument that said narratives surrounding the Henry Havelock statue, Tower of London and Cabot-Place which all reinforce the dominant narrative representing London as a metropolis of wonder and affluence.
This is due to said representations being produced by the state and private agencies, illustrated in different ways. From the rose-tinted and equally dubious legacy of imperial ‘heroes’ like Havelock, statues are seen to commemorate the dead, continuing their legacy. Similarly, the role of architecture creates a duality through inclusion through the grandeur of the past displayed through the Tower to the exclusion of undesirable subjects who fail to participate in consumption at Cabot-Place. In this essay, I will draw on numerous themes such as palimpsest, architecture and symbols which are used to reinforce existing narratives of London. Therefore, these three objects have come to symbolise how the ‘different aspects of the imperial experience [has] shaped the sites and spaces of the city’ (Gilbert and Driver, 2000: 23). The artefacts chosen for this essay have been used to reinforce a simplified idea of London as being a symbol of historical, cultural and financial power through positive associations. This simultaneously, downplays the realities of London as an imperialist city, using representation as a form of power creating an elevated status of London.
Constructed in 1861, the Sir Henry Havelock KCB memorial statue is situated at Trafalgar Square, the apex of dominant narratives surrounding Britain’s imperial past. These narratives are present through the composition of Trafalgar Square, which is filled with imperial artefacts, with some like Havelock, being controversial in nature. Hence, the statue is envisioned as being the pinnacle of rose-tinted portrayals of London’s past. This is due to London being signified as an imperial city; upheld as a centre ‘rich [with] glorious history, boundless energy, wealth and culture’ (Gilbert and Driver, 2000: 25). The first aspect of these representations surrounds the role of nostalgia in perpetuating the narrative of the past being glorious and spectacular. Boym, (in Legg, 2004) defines nostalgia as being the ‘longing for [the past] that [has never] existed’ (2004: 100), which the Havelock statue upholds by symbolising the golden age of Britain.
This is stated on one side of the plinth in Figure 1: ‘soldiers, your labours…sufferings and your valour will not be forgotten by a grateful country’ (London Remembers, 2017). By having the statue present, reaffirms the elements of the past for tourists through the commemoration of the army. The other side of the plinth of the statue reinforces the social construction of Havelock being hailed as a hero, of whom was remembered for his ‘brave campaigns in arms during the campaign in India, 1857’ (Cherry, 2006: 678). The emphasis on ‘brave campaigns’ reaffirms the palimpsestuous nature of the artefact, built for the purpose of upholding Havelock as a majestic figurehead who symbolised ‘bravery in the face of danger in India’ (Gunton, 2015). In addition, the association with religion is demonstrated through Havelock being likened to a ‘Christian hero’ (2006: 681), incorporating the dimension of morality through religious connotations emphasising good will. Subsequently, the plinth reaffirms the main narrative of ‘nationalist memory’ through encouraging the ‘geography of belonging, [with] identity [being] forged in a particular landscape’ (Legg, 2004: 101). Therefore, the statue reaffirms the role of semiotics, through association, being a relic of the past: in essence restoring the national identity of Britain as a former imperial power. Thus, the Havelock statue is viewed as necessity towards Trafalgar Square’s history through signifying the ‘history…heritage [and] national identity’ (Cherry, 2006: 662) of London as an imperial city.
As suggested by Saussure, cultural codes are not permanently fixed but ever-changing, as the ‘[connotations] also change…shift[ing] the conceptual map of culture’ (in Hall, 1990: 32). The Havelock statue is no exception to this, evident through two narratives: the exaggerated status of Havelock as being a known figure alongside the growth of alternative narratives challenging the legacy of Havelock as a hero. The elevated status of figures such as Havelock, are brought into question evident through the former Mayor Livingstone’s assertion that ‘[people] have no clue who the generals are and what they did’ (Cherry, 2006: 660). Thus, the dominant narratives emphasising remembrance is undermined due to ‘generals [like Havelock] not [speaking] to the present’ (2006: 661), but have rather ‘fallen out of living memory and into oblivion’ (2006: 662). The idea of falling out of memory, is extended through the questioned legacy of Havelock is also shrouded in doubt. This is due to the emergence of alternative counter-cultures (Mitchell, 2000) which have exposed Havelock as a murderer. This was illustrated through the reality of the Indian Mutiny (1857), as ‘all inhabitants of Kanpur, innocent and guilty were tortured and killed under Sir Henry Havelock’s leadership’ (Gunton, 2015). The role of narratives confirms the inauthenticity of representations, surrounding the legacy of Havelock and similar imperial artefacts. Therefore, the dominant narratives surrounding is based on a selective and political construction reinforcing what is ‘good [and] important’ (Mitchell, 2000: 71) about Britain’s imperial past.
What is interesting surrounds the reality of Trafalgar Square as being a ‘battleground of nostalgias- a paradoxical place of becoming and reflection’ (2004: 102). This is evident through the use of Trafalgar Square as being a place of anti-imperialism narratives challenging the dominant representations of Britain’s imperial past. The emphasis on paradox is noticed through protests and emerging debates which seek to remove figureheads like Havelock who have ‘carried out policies that have been harmful to a lot of people’ (Gill, in BBC, 2006). By adding more ‘liberal’ figureheads like Wilberforce, highlights the changing narratives of London as a city that recognises its past. Undoubtedly, the role of semiotics presents the roles of language and meanings as fluid entities, inserted into statues like Havelock, highlighting the possibility of alternative representations. Therefore, this questions the relationship between language and meanings. However, this is difficult in practice due to the contradictory nature of Trafalgar Square being a palimpsest within itself: a multi-layered canvas with traces of the past and present.
The Tower of London was built in 1066 and is an example of ‘Norman military architecture’ (UNESCO, 2017). It was built to demonstrate the former power of the monarchy upholding the ‘underlying social order’ (Whyte, 2006: 154) in that era. The Tower is not a single entity but rather a ‘large complex, [which] was built as a formidable keep’ (National Geographic, 2017) exerting Norman control of London. As a result, the Tower has become a complex artefact that is filled with different objects due to it being a ‘secure fortress, royal palace and infamous prison’ (Historical Royal Palaces, 2017). As such, this leads towards the idea of the Tower being a ‘palimpsestuous’ artefact identified in Figure 2. This is due to the Tower producing a ‘complex relationality [which is] embodied through the palimpsest’ (Dillon, 2005: 245), presented to the public through relics located around the Tower. This is illustrated through the presence of ‘armour and weaponry displayed by the Royal Armouries’ to the ‘Prisoners’ Gate [and] the dungeons- that provided the stage for key events’ (UNESCO, 2017). In addition, the Tower has become a place of security for the Crown Jewels, reinforcing the original function of the Tower as a protector of the monarchy. The role of palimpsest is evident through the changing functions of the Tower as it has been used for a variety of ways adds to the complexity of the Tower. This reaffirms the Tower’s status as a semiotic object as the ‘subject was displaced from the centre of language’ (Hall, 1990: 42) due to tourists naturalising existing signifiers’ of the Tower: a place of defence and security.
The Tower can also be viewed as a communicative object, providing a window into London’s past. This is illustrated through the positioning of the Tower not only being a gateway into the city, but also being ‘fundamental…to the nation’s defence’ (UNESCO, 2017). This symbolises the role of power, which the Tower of London encapsulates noticed through the reminiscence of war and combat illustrated through the physical design of the Tower. Filled with ‘defensive wall and moats’ (UNESCO, 2017) reinforcing the original but ever-changing functions that the Tower presents, reaffirming its purpose as a place of security and power. The Tower of London is also a World Heritage Site, and has become an international symbol creating familiarity amongst tourists. This is present through these monuments being placed on souvenirs, maps and merchandise. This reinforces the ‘maintenance of the topographical status quo’ (2005: 249) in continuing to signify the Tower as being a relic of history; a grand spectacle for tourists imagining what London once was, being a living memory. Therefore, the role of semiotics is reinstated through the architectural style of the Tower symbolising the role of defence as an essential aspect of Britain’s historical past. This is shown through the Tower which draws in ‘2.7 million tourists in 2016’ (Statista, 2016), being the most ‘visited paid attraction in England in 2016’ (ibid). Thus, the emphasis on architecture further highlights the pivotal role the Tower plays through upholding London’s identity as a historical metropolis.
Despite the different functions that the Tower fulfils, it is important to recognise and undermine the dominant representations of the Tower as being a place of security and wonder alone. Rather, the Tower paradoxically captures the essence of death highlighted in two sharply distinctive ways. It serves as a memorial site of the dead but also as a relic of brutality through the execution of political prisoners and even other royals. For example, the Tower was used as a memorial site, for the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation in 2014. It was used to ‘mark 100 years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the First World War’ (Historical Royal Palaces, 2014). Hence, this reinforced Bonta’s (in Whyte, 2000) notion that ‘architecture is designed to be meaningless’ (2000: 156), as tourists would interpret for themselves the complex meanings that the Tower delivers. This is evident for Jencks (in Whyte, 2000) as the Tower allows tourists to ‘make sense of the [artefact] through visual and spatial cues’ (ibid) provided throughout transforming the Tower into a ‘mnenic symbol’. For Freud, the mnenic symbol ‘provokes [tourists] to pause in the real and immediate’ (Cherry, 2006: 684) allowing contemplation through remembrance and understanding of the past. This allows people to build their own conceptions surrounding what the Tower represents, as a place of brutality through the mass executions of prisoners who were held there. The dominant narratives of the Tower, which is conveyed as an artefact of resilience against enemies, and upholding social order perpetuated by the monarchy are undermined. By creating one’s own interpretation of the artefact is seen to directly undermine dominant narratives of the Tower presenting alternative narrative, broadening perceptions of London as a historical metropolis.
Moving beyond the historical monuments located in Central London, and into the financial district of Canary Wharf it can be clearly seen that the semiotics of culture and language have penetrated into the area of the shopping centre in particular, Cabot-Place. By its location in Canary Wharf, a ‘privately owned estate owned by the Canary Wharf Group plc’ (Canary Wharf Group PLC, 2016) Cabot-Place signifies the role of commerce and consumption as a way of expanding London’s identity as a centre of consumption. The emphasis on consumption is apparent in the symbols displayed throughout the architecture of Cabot-Place. Decorated with glass exteriors, water fountains and wide-open spaces Cabot-Place displays the grandeur of London as being a metropolis in ‘constant motion: a site of restless commerce [and] activity’ (Gilbert and Driver, 2000: 26).
The emphasis on grand architecture is reinforced from within Cabot-Place. Urry (1995, in Raco, 2002) maintains: the creation of ‘aesthetically pleasing spaces’ (2002: 1870), is displayed through the neatness of the interiors signifying cleanliness. As a consequence, Cabot-Place like many other shopping centres want to encourage a pleasant shopping experience. This is evident through the by removal of ‘social pollutants whose presence may threaten the…aesthetic quality’ (ibid) of Cabot-Place.
The emphasis on control is present throughout Cabot-Place displaying visible signs which prohibit undesirable activities such skateboarding, littering to bringing in pets (Figure, 3). This reinforces Hall’s idea of ‘systems of representation’ through codes in which ‘govern the relationships of translation between them’ (1990: 21). This is noticed in skateboarding and littering which are viewed as disruptive in undermining the primary purpose of Cabot-Place, which is to partake in acceptable activities, primarily consumption. Therefore, by establishing people as consumers ‘reduc[es] the risk of social difference’ (Jackson, 1998 in Raco, 2003: 1871). The presence of CCTV cameras positioned around Cabot-Place adds in the role of surveillance, through observing people reinforcing their primary role as consumers of products. This heavily contributes towards the study of semiotics as imagery is used to reinforce dominant ideas of London being an affluent city, in which pockets of exclusivity persist.
The role of constructing an image of commerce through Cabot-Place, is seen to undermine the geographical location of Canary Wharf which is a ‘gated community’. Atkinson and Flint (2004) defined a gated community as a ‘walled and gated [commercial] development’ (2004: 875). This is applicable towards the surrounding areas which undermines the narrative of London as an affluent city. In reality, affluence is locked into concentrations displayed in Central London and Canary Wharf which is used to represent the entirety of London. This disproves the reality of London being presented in the media as ‘product of imagination [and] fiction’ (Dillion, 2005: 249).
The importance of physical upkeep reinforces the notion of Cabot-Place being a mere spectacle. The spectacle is defined by Debord (1995), as being the ‘social relationship between people that is mediated by images’ (1995: 12) illustrated through the types of shops comprised at Cabot-Place. This is displayed within Cabot-Place due to the emphasis on accustomed coffee shops and restaurants located throughout the shopping centre ‘promoting the virtues of familiarity’ (Jackson, 1998 in Raco, 2003: 1871). Therefore, particular shops are targeted towards the middle-classes noticed with the nonexistence of working-class outlets such as Lidl reaffirming exclusivity to the elite. Thus, the shops placed inside the shopping reflect the ‘cultural industries…that have defined [the] style and status’ (Mitchell, 2000: 80) of the area, being a place of high cultural tastes. Thus, Cabot-Place has become the ‘bearer of cultural codes’ (Mitchell, 2000) reinforcing the way of life for daily workers. The emphasis on accessibility reinforces the sinister underpinnings of Cabot-Place in being at the ‘heart of society’s real unreality’ (1995: 13) pushing the narrative that London is a desirable area. The spectacle in this case is not only a site of consumption but also generates an artificial environment in which the ‘predominance of appearances of…all social life [are] mere appearance[s]’ (1995: 14). As such, shopping centres such as Cabot-Place create experiences, in which people are reduced to the status of consumers buying products. Instead, this displays the ‘blandness of the shopping mall’ (Harvey, 2006: 1) which is emulated through the commonality of shops displayed inside Cabot-Place, attracting potential consumers. The emphasis on consumption reaffirms Cabot-Place as a centre of commodification as ‘commodities is all that there is to see’ (1995: 29) reconfirming the primary purpose of shopping centres: to purchase goods. As a result, property developers of Cabot Place prioritise ‘safety and practical comfort [for its’ users]’ through creating a pleasant shopping experience whilst ‘simultaneously aimed at keeping ‘other’ on the outside’ (Franzen, 2001: 202).
In conclusion, I have provided an account surrounding the role of semiotic analysis which affirms London as a city of history, wonder and affluence through tourist sites. It is clear that these representations are socially constructed, which are created in a way that is different from reality. The biggest indication of said constructions is conveyed through historical artefacts, as history becomes warped in order to justify the legacy of dubious individuals, like Havelock who was hailed as an ‘imperial hero’. Therefore, semiotic analysis through the prism of imagery is used to signify meanings via narratives; presented to the public. It is important to recognise the role of architecture as a communicator of juxtaposed meanings, serving as a form of duality; being both inclusive and exclusive in nature. This is evident through the Tower drawing in millions of tourists as a historical artefact to Cabot-Place encouraging consumerism, through the composition of shops to clean interiors. The physicality of the social space adds another dimension where sites communicate meaning through personal reflection of the past. Thus, semiotic analysis incorporates fluidity as meanings change overtime, present through the pluralism of different narratives which seek to undermine dominant representations of London. As such the commonality between the sites observed is that they all contribute different but positive meanings towards the premise of London being a unique metropolis.
Appert, M. & Montes, C. (2015) ‘Skyscrapers and the redrawing of the London skyline: a case of terriotorialisation through landscape control’. Journal of Urban Research, Special Issue 7 1-63
BBC (2006) ‘Debate over figures of the past’. Last accessed: 06/12/2017. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/6107118.stm
Cherry, D. (2006) ‘Statues in the Square: Hauntings at the Heart of Empire’ Art History Vol 29, No. 4 pp. 660-697
Debord, G. (1995) ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ translated by Nicholas-Smith, D. Zone Books. New York 2002
Dillion, Sarah (2005) ‘Reinscribing De Quincey’s palimpsest: the significance of the palimpsest in contemporary literary and cultural studies’. Textual Practice, 19:3, 243-263
Franzen, M. (2001) ‘Urban order and the preventative restructuring of space: the operation of boarder controls in micro space’. The Sociological Review, Vol. 49, No. 2 p. 202-218
Gilbert G. & Driver F. (2000) ‘Capital and Empire: Geographies of Imperial London’ Geo-Journal 51: 23-32
Gunton, F. (2015) ‘2 Controversial London Monuments and How They Contribute to British National Identity. Last accessed: 06/12/2017. Available at: http://madefrom.com/history/referenced/controversial-london-monuments/
Hall, S. (1997) ‘Chapter 1: The work of representation’ in ‘Representation: Cultural Significance and Signifying Practices’. SAGE Publications. Pp. 1-74
Legg, S. (2004) ‘Memory and nostalgia- review essay’. Cultural Geographies 11: 99-107
London Remembers (2017) ‘Statue: Havelock statue’. Last accessed: 06/12/2017. Available at: https://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/havelock-statue
Mitchell, Don (2000) ‘Cultural geography a critical introduction’, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Pp 66-88
National Geographic (2017) ‘Tower of London’. Last accessed: 07/12/2017. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/world-heritage/tower-of-london/
Oxford Dictionary (2017). Last accessed: 06/12/2017. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/semiotics
Raco, Mike (2003) “Remaking Place and Securitising Space: Urban Regeneration and he Strategies, Tactics and Practices of Policing in the UK”. Urban Studies, Vol. 40, No. 9, 1869-1887
Statista (2016) ‘Most visited paid attractions in England in 2016 (in million visits)’. Last accessed: 07/12/2017. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/425085/leading-paid-attractions-in-england/
Tower of London (2017). Last accessed: 06/12/2017. Available at: https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/#gs.vDZExnk
Tower of London Remembers. Last accessed: 07/12/2017. Available at: https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/tower-of-london-remembers/#gs.qd_mtqs
UNESCO (2017) ‘Tower of London’. Last accessed: 06/12/2017. Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/488
Whyte, W. (2006). ‘How do buildings mean? Some issues of interpretation in the history of architecture’. History and Theory 45. 153-177
City Circus, (2017) Figure 2- Tower of London [photograph] Last accessed: 07/12/2017. Available at: http://www.citycruises.com/london-sightseeing/packages/tower-of-london
Schroeder, C., (2017) Figure 3- Signs [photograph] (Christopher Schroeder’s own private collection).
Wikipedia Commons (2010). (Figure 1)- Havelock Statue London. [photograph] Last accessed: 07/12/2017. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Havelock_Statue_London.JPG