I’m sure like many of you reading this, you have a Sunday routine that may involve reading a paper of repute (or not) from early morning all the way through to the afternoon and for me it’s no different except it’s often with online additions as opposed to a hard copy. This morning in the Observer, Will Hutton in his Sunday article wants to discuss the changing face of spaces at developments where planning laws, weak municipal governments with little or no access to income raising powers and big business have conspired to create a situation where we get to see more and more developments that whilst they may look impressive and may come across as aesthetically pleasing they are in the main soulless.
Will starts by discussing his observations of Canary Wharf and comparing this with Manhattan for instance:
‘Canary Wharf is a daring development: more bankers now work in its offices than in the City of London. It has, with the Olympic Park, pulled London’s centre of gravity decisively eastwards. It is a tribute to modernity and boldness alike. But very few people I know like working there.
You surface from the gloriously expansive tube station to be dwarfed by a cluster of skyscrapers and inhumanly high towers, which strangely don’t seem to have any pride in themselves like those in New York. The shops in the underground shopping walkways gleam and glimmer and are full of tempting merchandise. It is all as it must have been in the architect’s drawings; it has taken me a long time to understand why I don’t feel drawn to any of it.
The reason, it became clearer on a recent visit, is that Canary Wharf possesses so little public space. Nothing is held in common. It is a “non-place”, whose lack of heart is brutally exposed at weekends and at night, when it empties. Privatisation and the values of the transactional, anonymised market have been taken too far. It is a dystopian present foretelling a more dystopian future.’
I used to live in South East London, in the area around Eltham, Kidbrooke (the ghetto!) and Blackheath and at the weekend my flat mate and I would get the train to Lewisham and then the DLR (Docklands Light Rail) to East London to visit my brother and friends over by Stepney Green and the journey would bring us through Canary Wharf. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed with its grandeur but what always amazed me was how it was completely empty save a few staff from TFL standing around. There’s a picture of what the main station area looks like on the left here, which I am sure you will agree looks impressive enough in a very modern kind of way. My friend and I would be on the train, making our way on the monorail (honest) through the buildings and sky scrapers, seeing a ticker telling us how certain stocks are doing at close on Friday and you would think it was a scene from 28 Days Later for instance, but no, it’s not a zombie apocalypse, just the outworking of allowing corporate interests unfettered control over public space, of laying aside all considerations in developments and having one demand at the forefront of all decisions to be made, how much money will this generate? We can’t blame corporation for wanting to make money, that’s what they are supposed to do, but should we not be expecting more from elected reps in standing up for the public interest or at least acting as a counter-weight, a check on corporate interests and looking to find a balance?
It also reminded me of a rather lengthy article I had read from Owen Hatherley in the Guardian February 2013 on changes to the UK’s sky line where left leaning municipal authorities have gotten into something of a Faustian pact with corporate interests as they thought the revenues from these developments would ultimately help in achieving their electoral aims, but some background first of all:
‘In 1987, independent local government in Britain effectively died. For several years, leftwing Labour councils had set up power bases, usually with great public support, to do what Labour councils had always done, or at least always liked to think they had done – build public housing, build public facilities, serve the people that elected them. Branded by the tabloids as the “loony left” and disdained by the Labour leadership, they were a varied bunch: the selfconsciously new left of the Greater London council (GLC), with its then-novel sensitivity to issues of gender, race, sexuality and international politics, and its predilection for bad mid-80s pop; the strange Trotskyist-Labourist melange of Liverpool council, which recklessly took the government on directly; and several others, such as Sheffield, Lambeth and Manchester, somewhere in between.
In 1986, the governing bodies of British urban areas – the metropolitan county councils of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, South and West Yorkshire, Tyneside, Greater London and Merseyside, created so that cities could be run like the massive, complex entities they are rather than as quasi-medieval independent boroughs – were suddenly abolished. Councils were rate-capped, so they could no longer build or spend like they used to. Defying that, as Liverpool did, meant dismissal from office. Most councils desperately hoped they would be saved by Labour winning the 1987 election. It didn’t, of course, and councils suddenly had no raison d’etre. They couldn’t really do anything any more. After a few years of flailing around in search of a point, the cleverer ones – Manchester city council, or the GLC’s shadow, the Greater London authority (GLA), discovered a new purpose.’
So, having been well and truly routed by Thatcher and the Tories during the 80s, Labour went back to the drawing board and rethought development in the cities they nominally ran and came up with trying to game the system in such a way that allowed them to pursue their goals in a game with neo-liberal rules:
‘Something happened to Labour’s architectural ambitions after 1987. By 1992, Rogers had co-written, with then Labour shadow culture secretary Mark Fisher, a manifesto called A New London. They presented a new architecture and urbanism that flourished on the continent but had no equivalent in Britain. The book showed public housing in the Netherlands, designed in witty, modern forms by young architects Meccanoo; the Olympic village in Barcelona, with its wide streets, mix of uses, cultural facilities and public spaces; and of course the Centre Pompidou in Paris, designed by Rogers himself with his one-time partner, Piano.
Unable to seriously borrow, or in the case of the GLA even to tax, other means were necessary. Local authorities all over the country favoured the section 106 agreement – a form of “planning gain” where developers were legally obliged to provide some sort of public infrastructure as part of their schemes. A complicated game of percentages began. New “luxury” housing developments, of which there have been hundreds since 1997, were obliged by the GLA to provide around 40% “affordable” housing. In theory, this could replace the now-impossible provision of new council housing. Except for another percentage – the definition of “affordable” is 80% of market rent, which prices out nearly all council tenants. This should have been obvious early on, but it was passed over in silence. Livingstone, convinced of the virtues of skyscrapers after being dazzled by a visit to Shanghai, made the new City skyline a major source of section 106 agreements. Again, this was unexpected. The old corporate skyline – the NatWest tower (now Tower 42) and Centre Point – was never popular, least of all among leftish activists.’
The new modernism was a massive departure from the somewhat ‘Soviet‘ mono-blocks of concrete that sprang up across Western Europe and of course much of Warsaw Pact countries during the 60s and 70s. Functional, soulless and often poorly made and maintained, these tower blocks were unloved and remain unloved. They were also unloved in the Soviet Union where in a rare show of dissidence the incredibly popular Russian film ‘The Irony of Fate‘ (Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!, it’s shown every New Years on Russian state television and would be seen as something akin to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘) had an animated intro showing the increasing encroachment of mono-architectural creations everywhere with the sameness of everything acting as a key element to this unusual love story and a meeting of complete and utter chance.
The North is not somewhere immune to this either. If we look at the Odyssey Arena for instance, can we honestly say that this space or property is vibrant or somewhere that is designed with the public in mind or somewhere designed to maximise the spending of money? Would you ever dream of going there if you didn’t plan on getting drunk? As a Canadian remarked to a friend of mine from Andersonstown, ‘dude, it’s a beer-mall.’ That’s right, it is a beer mall and a tacky one at that. If we compare with say one of my and a whole lot of others spaces in Belfast, the Cathedral Quarter say, then there really is no comparison. As Will has also noted:
‘A virtue of capitalism is that it allows scope for insurgents with new ideas to challenge incumbents, but today’s privately owned mega shopping malls are organised physically so that incumbents have all the advantages. Only they can afford the rents and we shoppers are corralled into using them because there is no possibility of chancing upon the new and unexpected.’
But isn’t that the whole point of the likes of the Castle Court shopping centre (owned by Westfield I believe) or Forestside in Four Winds? They want to limit competition, to destroy SME retail outlets and limit choice as it costs them money? Is it coincidental that Castle Court shopping centre in Belfast looks nearly exactly the same as Carindale shopping centre in Brisbane, both owned by Westfield? As much as they are derided, aren’t hipsters, earth mothers and a bohemian counter-culture the natural outworking of the increasing commodification of the public realm?
‘Britain can do better than be a land fit for the owners of Westfield and Canary Wharf. It can be a place we want to live in; where we go to the city because we want to go to the city – not just to shop. The Victorians built great parks and civic spaces with great pride, openly revolting against the depredations of free market capitalism. They also paid their taxes. Time for us to follow suit.’
Here’s hoping, not just in Britain but across Ireland and the developed world.