The architectural photographer as terrorist

Edward Denison
21 April 2009

There has been much questioning of police behaviour in Britain following the way the G20 protests in London on 1 April 2009 were handled. As an architectural historian and photographer who has stood in front of countless buildings in various countries armed with nothing more sinister than a camera and a wide-angle lens, the heavy-handedness of over-exuberant security officials is familiar. But few such experiences match the one I had in London recently - a few miles west of the G20 drama, in front of Hammersmith Police Station. The result was my detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), and a new sense of fear about my country.

Edward Denison is a heritage consultant, writer and photographer, who is undertaking a PhD at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. His books include Asmara: Africa's Secret Modernist City (Merrell, 2003/2007); Building Shanghai: The Story of China's Gateway (Wiley, 2006/2007); Modernism in China (Wiley, 2008); and the Bradt Travel Guide to Eritrea (4th edition, 2007)

Edward Denison's next book is McMorran & Whitby (RIBA Publishers, September 2009)

Also by Edward Denison in openDemocracy:

"Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war" (18 January 2006)

"Eritrea: a cheap holiday in other people's misery" (20 December 2006)

"Ethiopia's hostages to history" (5 March 2007)

"The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary" (13 April 2007)

"Restoring history in China" (9 August 2007)

The laws of this free and democratic country permit members of the public to photograph any building, as long as the photographer is standing on a public right of way when taking the photograph. I know this because a very professional and courteous member of the City of London Police explained it to me when I was photographing its headquarters at 37 Wood Street (completed in 1966) and the extension to the Central Criminal Courts on Old Bailey (completed in 1972), both designed by the architectural firm McMorran & Whitby

The senior partner of this firm, Donald McMorran, was not a glamorous architect nor was his work particularly celebrated, principally because the concrete-loving modernists that dominated architecture in post-1945 Britain eschewed his classical and humane architectural vocabulary. McMorran, however, did have a close relationship with the establishment - he worked extensively for the City of London Corporation and designed several police stations in the capital, including Hammersmith, which was completed just before the outbreak of the second world war. 

I set out to photograph this building for a book about McMorran & Whitby, one in a series about post-war British architects by the Royal Institute of British Architects, The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage. This broad alliance of learned groups indicates the degree of professional interest that underlies the project; the fact that Donald McMorran was my grandfather adds a personal element to this particular volume.

A cold light

Hammersmith Police Station fronts the busy Shepherd's Bush Road, so to obtain a decent photograph of its exquisite façade requires considerable patience. In my case, forty-five minutes elapsed before I was able to obtain an adequate traffic-free image from the opposite side of the road. Although I am not legally obliged to do so, as a matter of courtesy I always (if possible) seek to explain what I am doing to the occupants of any building I am photographing before I leave. At Hammersmith, I went to the reception located inside the public entrance, to be met by two quizzical officers. 

The duty officer informed me that I was not allowed to take photographs of this building. I said that this was incorrect. He took a few moments to confirm that indeed I had this right - albeit, he said, "for now". We joked somewhat nervously about the prospective changes in the law that made his worrying caveat necessary, and he voiced concern that such changes were imposed from the top of the Met while those on the lower ranks were left to "follow orders". We parted on good terms and I left the police station. 

Before heading back to the architectural abhorrence of the Broadway shopping centre that encloses Hammersmith tube station, I decided to photograph one last detail on the façade of the police station. It was then that two officers began shouting at me from some way up Shepherd's Bush Road. The ensuing conversation - lengthy, alarming, and at times ridiculous - led to them detaining me under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

What was particularly disturbing was the way the officers interpreted this comparatively new law. They appeared not to be responding to the situation at hand but rather re-enacting a type of role-play repeated endlessly in training. For example, they interpreted my hands-in-pockets stance on that cold morning as possibly concealing a knife, while my questions to them about why my name was being taken and radioed to a police switchboard were interpreted as being "obstructive" and "resisting the enquiry". Their clumsy conduct and doctrinaire manner implied that I was guilty and that nothing I could say could change this. 

Hammersmith Police Station, together with the plans already in my possession

While waiting for answers from their counter-terrorism colleagues, I took a moment to tell them about the book, present a formal letter stating my professional role, and describe the wider project and its aspirations to disseminate knowledge about the often overlooked subject of Britain's 20th-century built heritage. The family connection, I explained, even meant that some of the original plans and drawings of the building remain with our family. 

See also OurKingdom's serieson the police's treatment of citizens in London around the G20 summit on 2 April 2009, including:

Guy Aitchison, "Britain's policing problem" (8 April 2009)

Chris Abbott, "Trapped and beaten by police in Climate Camp" (9 April 2009)

And on the British state's security policy:

Jan Willem Peteresen, "London's security architecture: the end of the sustainable city?" (6 July 2006)

Paul Rogers, "A state of blindness" (26 March 2009)

The evidence in front of the officers' nose did nothing to soften their intransigence; neither did those I had only just spoken to inside the building come to explain and defuse the situation. Only when word arrived that my name was not on their list of terror suspects was I free to leave, albeit with a copy of a Form 5090(X) complete with my details. The encounter had lasted nearly another forty-five minutes.

As it ended, the officers' mood moved from the suspicious to the chummy. "Obviously, we would hope that common sense would prevail", said one. A bit late in the day for that, I thought, but it was his last comment - an apology for having been "in his police-officer mode" - that most shocked me. For if the belligerent and unyielding stance previously displayed is now the police norm - along with its absence of everyday understanding, intuitive sense of the situation, ability to respond to available evidence, and everyday respect - what kind of treatment of the public becomes "normalised" in more stressful situations, such as the G20 protests where police actions are now being investigated in three separate cases?  

A dark shadow

The incident at Hammersmith terrified me, more than anything as an example of how casually the liberties of a law-abiding member of the British public can be treated and how effortlessly he can be implicated by police officers intent on pursuing their line of enquiry irrespective of the reality in front of them. The incident should be a warning to those who defend ID cards on the basis that they have nothing to hide. I was pursuing my work when my name, date of birth, height, and address were recorded and put on a database. What happens next time I am "asked to account for my actions" under the Stop Code "Terrorism s.43"? Next time it could be you while on holiday taking photos of an attractive townscape.

The shadow of real terrorism and the fears it generates underlie much that is unhealthy in the urban life of Britain today - including, doubtless, the excessive and unconsidered procedures of police officers following the manual. But do the police really need to be trained to recognise that in the age of the mobile-phone camera (or indeed Google Earth), a man with a camera, a wide-angle lens and a fold-up bicycle openly taking photographs of a police station makes an unlikely suspect?

Real terrorists do what the Irish Republican Army did to McMorran & Whitby's Central Criminal Court on 8 March 1973, only months after it had been opened - detonate a massive car-bomb right outside what John Betjeman called this "splendid fortress of the law". The building survived intact. Donald McMorran had designed Hammersmith Police Station to withstand aerial bombardment, in anticipation of another kind of war.

I have worked in many places whose governments and societies would be viewed from the perspective of Britain's public, media and officialdom to be deficient in freedoms and rights. That may be so of (for example) the Horn of Africa or China when set against a consistent and principled standard; but in light of my experience in west London, there is a deep flaw in the attitude. For the authorities in Britain are giving the country's law-enforcement officers unprecedented powers at the expense of the very public they are charged to protect, and doing so while daring to lecture others on the notions of freedoms and rights. 

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