The Ianto Shrine: The Cardiff landmark that commemorates a man who never was

Never forget. Image: Ed Jefferson.

Impromptu shrines to culturally important dead people are not unheard of. More than 15 years after the death of Princess Diana, I stumbled across a small collection of messages and flowers tied to the fences of Kensington Palace. The David Bowie mural in Brixton has been flooded with tributes since his sad departure last January. And a shrine to Marc Bolan, on the site of his fatal car accident in Barnes, has become a permanent memorial.

Much rarer are shrines to people who never actually existed in the first place, but they do exist. In Cardiff Bay, for instance, on an otherwise unremarkable bit of wood-panelled wall, are dozens upon dozens of tributes to a man who never was.

What fictional character could possibly merit this treatment? Surely one of vast impact, from stories that left culture changed forever?

It’s Ianto Jones.

From Doctor Who’s dubious “adult” spin-off Torchwood.

No, not that one from Torchwood. Or that one. The other one, who didn’t really even have any character traits apart from “being slightly sarcastic”.

Click to expand, if you must.

I came across it entirely by chance a few years ago and was mesmerised. There are photos, drawings, flowers, poems, essays. There are messages from all over the world – in just the ones I took pictures of, I can see mentions of Spain, Finland, Russia. Someone’s sewn a tiny version of Ianto’s suit; someone else has hung up a tie.

The results of a poll from Poll Pigeon Dot Com have been laminated: 55 per cent of respondents say they won’t watch the next series unless Ianto is resurrected. There’s a “Keep Calm And Save Torchwood” card. There’s Ianto as the Terminator saying, “I’ll be back!”. There’s a confusing reference to Paul McCartney’s alter-ego Percy Thrillington. All human life is here.

 

So how did a character who most people probably never knew existed in the first place earn this tribute? Thanks to the magic of the internet, it’s not hard to find obsessive fans of almost anything these days (there’s even Thomas The Tank Engine fan fiction where the trains turn into people and... kiss). But this stuff rarely spills over into the real world.

The one other recent example involved a far more famous character: Sherlock Holmes. When the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock fell to his death off the roof of Barts Hospital in London, a nearby telephone box became the site of tributes (you can still see some “SHERLOCK LIVES” graffiti on the phone box and the wall next to it).

This occurred even though it was made clear he hadn’t actually died within the episode where it happened – which suggests that at least some of the people behind this stuff are doing it with tongue very much in cheek.

But there’s something else going on with the Ianto shrine – something made clear by the number of “tributes” which rail against Torchwood’s creator, Russell T Davies. Though Ianto Jones may not have been a very good character, he did represent something important to many people: he was involved in a same-sex relationship with the series’ lead character, Captain Jack. That’s something that remains relatively rare in genre television, and, rightly or wrongly, there were people who felt that his death was something of a slap in the face.

The usual things that happen when people get angry about television happened. There were e-petitions. There was a “Save Ianto Jones” website. There was a campaign to send bags of coffee to the BBC (Ianto was often seen making coffee, you see) – albeit one which Davies claims that only nine people actually bothered to take part in. And then, perhaps most interestingly, in a part of Cardiff Bay used as a location on the show, some fans decided to leave tributes. And so Ianto’s Shrine was born.


The character “died” in 2009, but the Shrine’s still there. The owners of the wall it’s attached to appear to have taken it in good spirit, and at some point mounted an explanatory plaque to ensure bemused passers-by understand that the man who died fighting aliens wasn’t actually real.

The shrine has even got its own page on TripAdvisor, though not all the reviews are positive. “My daughter wanted to go here,” notes a visitor from East Hartford, Connecticut, “an absolute waste of time”. Others acknowledge that, while it may have had its moment, it is getting a bit “faded and jaded”, and that it’s time for it to go. These people are wrong.

I hope Ianto’s Shrine persists – not as a memorial to a TV character, but as a memorial to how brilliantly ludicrous people can be when they put their minds to it. Whether it’s the work of nine people or 90,000 people sort of doesn’t matter – either way, the point here is the hours put into the creation of something so essentially futile. This small, silly, human-scale stuff is as much of what makes places places as the grand-projets, garden bridges and gleaming towers. Ianto’s Shrine is a Cardiff landmark.

 

Click to expand. Honestly, it's worth it. 

May the Ianto Wall stand long after everyone has forgotten that there even was anything called Torchwood – has forgotten that there was even a thing called television. Thousands, even millions of years from now, when the sun sets on whatever remains of the human race, they should remember that there was an Ianto Jones, even if they have absolutely no idea what that means. Because it would be quite funny if they did.

It’s got three and a half stars on TripAdvisor, and is apparently the 67th best thing in Cardiff.

All photographs courtesy of Ed Jefferson, who you can also find on Twitter.

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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