I was walking down Essex Road a week ago and came across this block of flats. Around the time they were built twenty or more years ago, at the tail end of the loadsa money eighties and the middle of the dot-com nineties, people were obviously very different. Though not quite the totally unhinged Terry Farrell postmodern stylings of the MI5 building, 125 London Wall, or Charing Cross station, these flats are certainly in the same vein and with similar aspirations—but on a city worker’s budget.
Aside from being a collection of the most uniquely fucking jank structures in London today, I think these buildings give us an insight into the aspirations of the people who live in them, the public around them, and the time of their construction.
With their stacked squares and arches, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they remind us of children’s’ toy building blocks. They’re constructed in flagrantly masculine and boisterous ways, with grids of bricks in checkerboards, powerful decorative towers, and with curves or classicism just bolted-on objectively like a pair of plastic novelty breasts.
It’s an egoistic reading and enactment of postmodernity, which looks at architectural history and sees only a series of costumes ready to be grabbed out of context and put on in any order you like. But during the lads mag; yoof TV; Tony Blair with an acoustic guitar; inner-child embracing 1990s – what more could we have expected? ‘Cool Britannia’ has had such a tellingly short half-life that the words barely have to enter your brain before you’re doubled over in excruciating embarrassment.
As hindsight’s acid-reflux tells us today, having the temerity to build nonsense brick-dick buildings with the Bro-enlightened perspective of someone who thinks they can just mash together any architectural style and make it look good, all the while pretending to be in some virtual historical endpoint like those aliens playing marbles with galaxies at the end of Men in Black: this is all just an impotent male fantasy. It is Homer Simpson’s bubble car. It is a Playstation daydream about skateboarding. It is the emasculated office worker’s power trip.
So what are we dreaming about today?
Estate agents and property developers—notoriously never invited to the good parties—have always been a few bitter steps behind the desires of the general population. It’s a bitterness they’ve swallowed back down on countless night buses home, only to concentrate it back into the nervous sales energy and drive for money that keeps them glassily sedated and, like a poisonous jungle plant, keeps everyone else instinctively distant and disgusted.
But with daily lifestyle emails, the dominance of the location tagged image in popular culture through apps like Instagram, and the networked immediacy of the internet, these funny property people have recently stepped up their game.
From turning up ten years late in Shoreditch to build in the dust of the long-departed circus wagons, to appearing in disguise at Peckham’s Bussey Building and taking secret coked-up phone notes in toilet cubicles, and now with an algorithmically accurate and networked understanding of the movements of Our Great City’s elusive Young Creatives, they’ve obliterated Hackney Wick and begun to develop and manage properties close to the bourgeoning warehouses of Seven Sisters, Canning Town, etc., leaving the out-priced and dispossessed in their wake.
The rampant property market in London is no longer colonising former artist’s, alternative, cheap, and low-income locales; it’s preceding these spaces like a latent virus, whilst seeking opportunities for profit and proliferation in the formerly unliveable—garages, cubicles, commercial guardianships and garden sheds.
With the concept of gentrification leaking like muesli milk from The Observer supplements and into the hearts and minds of general consensus, the anxieties of residential property developers and buyers has started to beam from every advertising board and PR campaign with a Vegas neon brilliance. The postmodern play-phallus has disappeared, reserved only for the glass superstructures of city finance. The anxiety of gentrification—of the people the developers and buyers may be muscling out in order for them to muscle in—means that residential living has had to become a little more nuanced.
People don’t want to appear to look like part of the problem. Climbing out of an Uber, tapping your contactless on the self-service checkout, walking down Woolwich high street in a pinstripe suit to your ostentatious building-blocks flat, might be seen today as a bit much.
Realising that you’ve basically dropped from nowhere like an ugly moneyed blot into the lives of an established community causing an irreversible wholesale change, might start to create the kind of niggling sense of guilt and doubt in a person that could potentially destabilise the housing market.
In London, prospective buyers of the middle-classes no longer dream of living in a house where they might stand out; they would prefer to live somewhere which may appear at least like they fit right in.
Though “virtue signaling” is an often used and abused term banded by the alt-right to gaslight the political correctness and compassion of the Left as insincere posturing, there is certainly something to be said of the general neoliberal sensibility to change, shapeshift, and mask itself in order to feel or appear righteous when necessary.
Perhaps our ability to manipulate morality at will and ascribe value judgements on demand, comes from our total immersion in an economic system based on perpetually unpaid debts, virtual currency, and a near-religious mystification of finance, the marketplace and power.
Moral rights and wrongs should be able to be tested by our actions, proven through the good or bad results, and interrogated if necessary. But how do we understand morality when the results of our actions are constantly deferred, when the debts of our choices are never repaid, and when we in turn become enslaved to these debts?
As long as we have acknowledged this process of choice, of choosing what we feel may be right or wrong, it does not matter to us how we decide to act in the end. We are enslaved to choice; it absolves us of the good or the bad. Typically this features as an underlying irony in the mind of the postmodern subject. We feel that as long as we know in our mind the right way to behave, choosing to act in the opposite way is acceptable—because choice pardons us.
I don’t like Love Island because it’s stupid—but I am going to watch it anyway because I’ve had this thought process, therefore I am absolved from truly being a viewer like the others.
Back to the buildings, take a look at these terraced townhouses in Hoxton.
It’s all about clean lines, symmetry and assimilation. The thin London bricks are muted and pre-weathered. Obviously the new terraces are noticeably different, but the style pallete is very conservative, and it aims to look as if they could have been built around the same period as the older terraces. As time passes by, the differences between the new and old will shrink even further.
What makes these newly developed flats more ominous than the postmodern block on Essex Road? In the Simpsons episode “Oh Brother, Where art thou?” when Homer builds his ostentatious dream car, he borrows a space-age glass bubble, 50s Cadillac shark fins and grille, the spoiler from an Italian supercar, and a clash of many other designs. The collision of styles is so monstrous, because style only makes sense when its speaking amongst its historical moment. It cannot be separated from its histories, cultures and peoples without maiming or destroying itself. Or in the case of the Terry Farrell-style postmodern buildings, without looking like some boastful wank fantasy.
Just because these contemporary terraces and flats seem to be more demurely classical and stylistically cohesive, doesn’t mean they are more faithful to history. Instead of a Farrell-Simpson trashy historical collage, a singular style has been cut out from history as a readymade, a façade, a theatre set. It’s an anxious hologram of respectability for the new residents to hide behind. It says: there’s nothing to see here, nothing has changed, we are part of this place and its history, and have every right to live here. It’s an amendment to a family tree, the historical right of the new inhabitants’ to a community’s lineage.
In time, for the passerby, the difference between the new and old developments will be invisible. The ferocious proliferation of residences like this all over the city makes these developments so omnipresent they are virtually invisible anyway.
If Homer were a moneyed Young Creative building a car on the streets of London today, he would build a silver 2007 Ford Focus, and park it outside his house pretending it has been there for a decade. A bumper sticker would read “Gentrification? Not me.” Though sometimes of course, the grandiose imperatives of the homeowner sneak through, against the wishes of the architect. Take this matte gold Audi 4×4, for example, parked outside of the Hoxton developments.
As far as consumer cars go, it doesn’t get more ostentatious than a performance four-wheel-drive parked in the middle of the most densely urban city in the UK. It’s a statement car, and just through existing alone it presents to us an admittance of its own excesses. The four-wheel-drive’s shape and size is a weak, half-nod to some kind of functionality or utility, but as soon as we acknowledge the gold paint and the locale, it immediately transforms this gesture into a smirk.
It’s the equivalent of spending a grand on a block of professional chef’s knives just so you can use them to slice open the packet of your Tesco stir fry each night, an act I’m sure genuinely occurs hundreds of times daily within a mile radius of the car itself. Before we leave the car, notice the stylised absence of the Audi logo on the custom boot lid. It reminds me of a conspicuously smooth Action Man crotch. Where is the brand, the marker, the totem? It becomes present in its absence, incanted like a spirit each time we look at it.
The ghostly absence/presence of the wrecking-ball power of property in London today, with theatrical building façades and their architectural historic reenactments, all contribute to an unnerving sense of virtuality and surrealism that looms on every street.
Inside the minds of the buyers, the ironic subjectivities of the emerging wealthy professional creative classes, the question of whether this is right or wrong is irrelevant. In their manic internal monologues, just choosing to notice or ignore, or do both, short circuits the possibility of action or resistance. Virtual subjects in a virtual environment, mutually reinforcing one another.
It is now the role of the architect, developer and estate agent to mitigate the increasingly self-evident destructive powers of the housing market by maintaining this virtuality. They do so with the kind of progressively anxious fervor you might expect from a desperate casino owner trying to coerce patrons through the front door.
‘Fashion designers, Turner Prize winners… and you,’ reads this advertisement on the side of some former warehouses near Angel. Obviously, the fact that these warehouses are no longer warehouses but luxury residences instead, testifies to there being no “artists” here any longer. But the historical lineage is clearly demarcated: artists are/were here presently/absently, and now its your turn to follow in their footsteps.
How exciting – will it be the tin of shit, or the on-and-off lights, or the messy bed? There is something inherently suspicious about a PR campaign that is desperate to let the prospective buyer know they are living in an artistic neighbourhood, whatever this means. I can imagine if they decided to develop property on the scorched landscape of a former nuclear test site, the ad-boards would picture all the wonderful living plants and creatures that used to be in the area, the teeming life that you – yes you! – would get to engrave your name beneath as a new member of the local lineage.
This weakly scribbled “i waz ere’ footnote to a virtual reimagining of history, is about the most sincere gestural contribution to society and community that the middle-classes are currently willing to make in London. One of the remaining joys of living here today is watching these apartments raise from the ground, with ever more increasing, concise, and poetic anxieties inscribed in block letters on their promotional material, letting everyone know why their existence is anything but terrible.
The consciences of gentrification and social-cleansing that threaten to organize into something more than a virtue signal is kept at peace with the Vegas neon poems of advertising. The language of PR and advertising is, I believe, the popular art form of today in cities like London. But until property buying is made accessible and gamified in some way, the Vegas experience remains very much a high rollers reserve.
Air BnB has tried; and like any good game it comes with an app. But the play is more like SimCity property magnate, rather than anything with a fast-paced dynamic element of risk, like Tinder or Bejeweled. It has me wondering what the endgame of London’s current property aspiration is. It seems the narrative is that everyone should want to buy into the idea of living inside a genuine historical moment, with its blue plaque heritage pedigrees and former artists credentials, all of us taking part in a grand historical project of dynamic “London,” we seem so anxious to keep reminding ourselves is definitely still here. Artists?! Sure! They used to live right there, actually.
The logical end point of this mass hallucination is that we all live in some historical important moment we’re proud to be in, and we all presumably own buy-to-let investment properties that we rent out to others. Those others will also own buy-to-let properties, and will be living in a very important and historical moment themselves…
We can cut short this feedback loop here. It is impossible. Property development and the logic of capital and accumulation must always return to territory, ownership, domination and subjugation. Someone owns, someone else pays. Preferably this takes place inside a belief system that legitimates the whole exchange by vilifying the tenant, the payer, as someone who is weak and unable to play the game right; and extolls the landlord, or the paid, as the skilful, heroic hard grafter.
They are the chosen ones who essentially have the rights to history, to the artists quarters, to party in the former warehouses of the former humanities students—who went on to get careers in PR producing adverts for warehouse style apartments.
There is very much a Vegas gambler’s sensibility running beneath this. If you walk around in a casino you are not in a room full of winners. To be so would be impossible; it would negate the existence of the casino. But where is the fun of following the logic of the gamble to its fallacious conclusion? The game itself offers a temporary moment of a thrill, and for some people, owning and developing property can be that thrill. It’s the thrill of a momentary belief in the triumph of chance and expertise and righteousness, over the privileged realities of profit, social-cleansing and subordination.
When developers find out how to offer this thrill more quickly and widely than Air BnB—when the housing market becomes truly gameified as dating/shopping/banking/ already have been—property development will become unstoppable. Help to Buy: this is too slow. A mortgage is like a roulette wheel that spins for a lifetime whilst you fritter away your years at the table, bleeding yourself pale with a pathetic run of small wagers.
‘Luxury’ has long been capitalism’s way of quickly and temporarily appeasing the gambler’s fantasy in our lives. You can work 40 hour minimum wage weeks or sit around in your flat all day, but with your silver rococo candelabra on your fireplace, “Dream Home” written in wooden letters on the coffee table, and glossy IKEA kitchen work surfaces, you can play at being the winner for a while. Until the itch rises again. If you’ve got enough money in London to buy a property, you can now play at being a member of a constructed community of artists too.
Lets have one last look at play and impossibility. The picture on the left shows a close-up of the front window of the Hoxton terraces, and on the right the entrance to an apartment and office block close by in De Beauvoir Town. Each terrace front window is a view into a plunging vacant drop, which leads to the downstairs flat space. With the apartment block, this gnomonic chunk taken from the front of the building is the definitive recurring design trope, used in almost every new development of its kind all over the city.
It creates a kind of optical illusion. The building still stands, in spite of an absent mass of supporting walls and beams; it’s the closest contemporary residential architecture gets to the bravado of the postmodern stylings of the 1990s and early 2000s. This time, rather than ornamental extrusions, we are treated to a kind of confidence trick. It says: this project is self-supported upon nothingness, on the faiths and myths of privilege.
It’s a physical realisation of the contemporary housing market and crisis—a broken system that thrives of the supernatural ideologies of big capital, the invisible hand of foreign investment, and virtual PR community histories, all of which we cannot see or understand yet nevertheless make these developments possible, keeping them suspended.
With the terrace’s front window, it’s not just an erasure of where a living room might have been, but it’s the way it pretends to give us a complete glass-transparent insight into who might live here and where they came from. In actuality, it allows only a view into vacancy, white walls and fresh air, and a ghostly reflection of ourselves standing outside.