In one of those moods again, so decided to take a walk and some photos around Kings Cross. Both the station and its surroundings have transformed rapidly over the past five or so years in what is one of the biggest urban regeneration projects in the city. The result is grand, weird, smooth, empty; an enormous privately owned public space, subject to security and regulations which quietly or not-so quietly dictate the terms of its use.
_____In its newfound international leanings, Kings Cross station has followed a similar line to its sister over the road, St. Pancras. A luggage trolley sawn in half, cemented into the wall beside the Waitrose, forms a simulated world famous Platform 9 ¾, and its snaking high-street bank queue rope is packed with people pretty much constantly. At the front of the queue, a marshal employed solely for this purpose quickly ushers you forward, runs a red and gold coloured scarf around your neck, and takes a camera phone photo of you stood behind the half trolley buried into the building.
_____It’s a place reconditioned to make anyone from anywhere feel very much relaxed and confident inside its glowing chamber of global far-reaching brands we have learned to become accustomed to and pacified by. A real sense of comfort or a cohesive spatial understanding of the building are sacrificed for brand-sense at all costs.
_____Reminds me of the Costa and Sainsbury’s that opened in the buildings opposite Goldsmiths whilst I was doing my undergrad. The new units were part of the university’s immense local property portfolio. Aside from the lucrative rents and rates the college would be charging for these spots, presumably the main investment was in encouraging as many domestic and international students to feel as “welcome” as possible with these behemoth British brands stalwartly flagging the entranceway to the main building.
_____Behind Kings Cross station a ramp leads to the rest of the development. The road is that kind of grit that is glued into the ground. It barely moves and makes a subdued crunch beneath your shoes. The pavements and piazzas are bleached grey flagstones and yellow sandstone slabs, pressure washed by attendants with mobile trolleys early in the morning and quietly at dusk, daily. Past fancy restaurants, the Google headquarters, advertising boards, and buildings in various states of construction and completion, is Granary Square, the former something-or-other but now current site of the Hyper-Super-Regen Next-Gen Central St. Martins art school campus. There’s also a burgeoning bar and restaurant (non)district, some Victorian gas holders recently converted into apartments (named in delicate serif typeface, Gasholders) and an almost finished “100,000 sq. feet of Experiential Shopping”, The Coal Drop, est. 1850.
_____Granary Square has History, so we’re told. Used by train companies and canal commerce during the 19th and early 20th century, like the gas towers, its been mostly defunct and derelict since the end of the second world war, except in minor roles as storage areas and builder’s yards, or for a few flits of life in the 1980s and 90s as the home of the legendary Bagleys Warehouse.
_____Today Granary Square is suspended in an uncanny state of incompletion. The relentless ad-boards that encircle it protect the passerby from witnessing the ugly matter-of-fact materiality of the construction process, which would shatter the locale’s otherwise immaculate conception and arrival. Paired with the enormous empty shop units and apartment blocks, and the John Deere private security milk floats that buzz around constantly with a sense of unnerving mystery only matched by their absurd aimlessness, walking around this place is bewildering.
_____Now the dominant form of almost every regeneration project in the city of London and unfortunately elsewhere, Granary Square is very much the archetypal privately owned and secured “public” space. The ceaseless state of construction and lack of closure; the architecture of angular neoclassical forms and glass exoskeletons designed specifically to prevent those on the ground from any consistent perspective; the constant loops of the busy-looking fluorescent security team; all create a simulated space which you cannot fully realise, nor properly realise yourself inside.
_____Simply put, you feel constantly unnerved, made aware that you are a subject in someone else’s situation, one in which the rules are still being defined ad-hoc and privately, and your terms inside this supposedly public space are subject to random checks, questions and denials. Viewing the machinations of this is, naturally, strictly forbidden. Even the unfolding of time—which might signify an ongoing process of construction—is screened by tunnels of construction board imagery of the finished space. It is a space that will constantly be deferred, and we are led to imagine, may never arrive.
This is the location of the regenerated and relocated Central St. Martins campus, now in the old granary itself. Aside from how monumentally fucked up marketised higher education in the UK is—especially the pressures it exacts on the arts and humanities—this campus makes painfully and essentially clear what higher arts education is actually about: from the perspective of its financiers and profiteers, for its debtors or prospective debtors, and to the members of the public, who star in this drama as excluded extras, illegal aliens without the ID and documentation to make it past the chrome coded turnstiles and sliding entrance doors of Premium access, permitted a mere temporary visa through its Bronze package atrium. Where, of course, you are free to play table tennis on any of the provided tables.
_____In here, you can gaze through floor-to-ceiling glass at the knowledge production taking place inside, and the products of their artistic labours pinned to dress mannequins in Oxford Street-style manicured window displays. It seems less like the genuine work of the students, and more like an advert for the Institution – though if you’ve studied inside an arts university in London in the past decade or so, you’ll know the difference between these two is essentially unknowable.
_____Equally laboured is the promotional material blended into the construction boards surrounding Granary Square, selling both the square itself, the apartments and offices surrounding, the university, and a bitter blended cultural product of all of these things.
_____The Coal Drop is the site of the tantalisingly unfinished Experiential Shopping something-something, built within the former site and now skeleton of, yep, the coal drop. Large adboards with HD images of the shining black stuff are blended with PR photoshop mastery usually reserved for HBO dramas and smartphone releases.
_____Coal—its materiality, histories, uses, environmental impact, chemistry—is completely flattened into a monochrome aesthetic, virtual shaded blacks and greys, which as we know from our late-capitalist normcore trend, provide a great backdrop for any contemporary PR campaign aiming to bowl its audience over with a unquestioning sense of professionalism, classicism, style, and historical permanence. Incidentally, what is our monochrome normcore fling except a direct descendant of the dual-headed snake of Professionalisation and Precarity, which currently ensures we’re dressed for the possibility of some work, any work, at all moments?
The frantic Frankenstein stitching between student artistry and fashion design to commercial high-end retailers that will soon fill the Coal Drop is visceral: victorian engineering interwoven with contemporary architecture. In practice—the prospect of getting some A-Levels, completing a successful application to Central St. Martins, affording to rent and maintain your life in London during a degree, studying alongside working, creating work or art that is true to your self, vision and the best of your ability, producing artifacts that could be reproduced and sold to others, getting into contact with buyers, pitching your designs to retailers, showing your work in exhibitions and catwalks, and eventually commercially selling your work—these are uniquely complex, fraught, and realistically, purely fantastic propositions. But everywhere, the adverts promise otherwise.
_____Granary Square – Fashion – Catwalk – History – Fame – Success.
_____It is made to look so easy. Certainly at Central St. Martins, the prospect is much more likely for some than for others. Whilst arts, design and humanities degrees suffer from drastic underfunding, the shrewd and profit-driven university administrations have gone looking for the easy money—often this means international students. If you can afford to privately front the tens of thousands of pounds required for these fees, your oligarch father has likely already gotten you that two week internship through his golfing mate Philip Green when you were seventeen anyway. Liz Lightfoot’s 2015 Guardian piece estimates the personal finances required to front a successful MA Fashion degree show at Central St. Martin’s at about ten grand. Who are these graduates?
Material history in Granary Square becomes a pure aesthetic, stripped of its peoples, actions, places and times. Coal is a monochrome image only. It looks great with Central St. Martin’s smokey catwalk degree shows, moody models, and a repackaged sense of place, which is both trying to prove itself as the original article and spiritual descendant of a working, commercial Victorian London – and as a reinvention that both respects and surpasses these pasts.
_____I really enjoy the effectiveness of “reinvention” here, and it’s a term I’ve borrowed from their own promotional material. It signifies in the perfect way that only extensive and expensive PR-consultation can deliver (or extensive and expensive humanities degrees can deduce), the sense of late-Victorian industriousness and entrepreneurialism that our current epoch is rediscovering to be Lord-Sugar-heroic, or post-arts-degree-career-sensible, or just plain legitimate for a civically, ethically and morally reprehensible team of Redevelopers, intent on disguising enormous private social cleansing projects as something which is somehow beneficial for the public.
_____With respect for material history impossible here, history must be dehydrated and flattened, it must become a coaly greyscale Pantone palette ‘History,’ and we must drift around inside it, like pastille CGI figures in an artists impression.
In Mark Fisher’s excellent book Capitalist Realism, he gives an insightful reading of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 movie Children of Men. Set in a dystopian near future, Clive Owen and rest of the general population are impotent, and the political elite classes are holed up inside luxury apartments built within the reinvented and regenerated Battersea power station. They’ve filled this compound with hoarded fine art and treasured cultural objects—an eerily prescient prediction of the Granary Square and Gasholders development, and most tastily of course, of Battersea power station itself, which is currently in the grips of a transformation into luxury apartment buildings. The “Iconic” chimneys were actually dissembled and reassembled again during this process, but unfortunately for the developers, all the advertising boards in the world could not provide a mask to disguise the building’s temporary shriveled flaccidity.
_____The former gas holders, now Gasholders, like Battersea power station are listed buildings. Meaning that, instead of being ploughed into the ground to make way for as much luxury housing as is physically possible, some restraint has to be shown. Though this often means the protected buildings have to be left well alone, if the design can be shown to be truly fancy, resplendent, expensively commissioned and tasteful enough, some exceptions will be made. Perversely, this means that they are protected up to a limit—that limit only being surpassed when truly expensive and uniquely luxuriant apartments and their patrons have shown that they have enough money and decorum to make an exception. Social housing need not apply.
_____So we are faced with the completely fucked up reality that the gas towers—the way that just in being there they testify to the possibility of grand beauty in the machines of public service and industry, and in their decorative ironwork’s latent subtleties are fitting monuments to the skilled workers that designed, built and worked within them, thanklessly—are now just a architectural oddity, a frame, a canvas sketch, a selling point, for prohibitively expensive and completely private housing that working class people and service workers will never be able to afford.
_____Fisher convincingly surmises that in the Control society we currently live within—with our behaviours regulated through the manipulations of our desires, rather than dictated by the paternal jail and baton of a Disciplinarian-Authoritarian society—its unlikely that we will wake up to an explosion one morning, when the Revolution or the End (or both) rolls up outside our bedroom window. More likely, the public will gradually be ushered out of sight, the world will sleepwalk into a confusing privately owned space, the rich will barricade themselves in their empty world of capital fetish value, and the general population will slowly be revealed to be impotent in all kinds of ways.
I remember at the end of 2008, after the beginning of a financial crash too large and bizarre for us to understand, I was still in school. Non-uniform days quickly began to drift into unusual and as yet unforeseen territories. It seemed with the prospect of wealth and work as we’d known them thrown sharply into focus by globalism’s now uncertain claims; by turbulent unemployment; and by a project of Quantitative Easing that had facilitated the largest transference of wealth from the general public to the rich in recorded history; fashion sense had also embarked on a bit of a power grab. The promised trajectory of meritocratic hard study materialising into the good-wage reward could be short circuited, just as easily as endemic financial super-crimes could go unpunished, and irrationally, rewarded.
_____What were we going to be when we grew up? And how could we get there? Opting for the short circuit ourselves, we bought Hollister clothes to imagine we were millionaire sandy-haired Malibu beach hut proprietors, or donned Hunter wellies and Jack Wills jodhpurs to play at being old money aristocrat children.
_____Giant televisions glowed Downton Abbey into millions of homes; the viewers as subservient as the scullery staff they rooted for, projecting their fantasies onto being a downtrodden maid (likely played by some wealthy RADA graduate doing their best Yorkshire coalface) caught in the drama of the household, delighting in the subordination. The gentry aesthetic was grasped with all the same fervour that a trauma victim seizes their imaginative fantasies when a psychic shock too great to know or understand suddenly makes reality unlivable.
_____Eight years of austerity later, and the paint had really begun to blister and burst. Those Hollister summers seemed so distant and Bebo-buried. But the shame of emulating the rich, and the shame of being rich, manifests itself today in the wardrobes and on the slight frames of Home County boys and girls, the affluent Shire villagers, the former boarders, softly spoken Devonshire coasters, the Cheshire and Cotswold kids with interesting parents. Now all grown up, doing arts and humanities degrees in London and the cities of the Northern Powerhouse, and blossoming into Young Creatives: it’s short back and sides for everyone, loud activewear, big sports brands—basically a caricature of the entire ensemble of the poorer kids they used to laugh at whilst they queued up over the road at the comprehensive school bus stop. It’s a working class aesthetic tweaked into the hyperreal realm of sports-luxe – a way to both blend into, and to subtly dominate, the poorer parts of the urban cities they are renting in during their studies and internships. It is a thinly veiled guilt, and a thinly veiled disguise.
_____But it does not stop at riches now, it’s nationhood too. What is Great Britain any longer when it cannot pay its teachers properly, when it sells away its NHS, when it shames, disgraces, and even kills its most vulnerable members of society. Like a shining blue sword, the Conservatives invoked the blinding light of nationalism: it was the fault of foreigners, of the EU, of drowning boat children, of Syrians, of somebody else from somewhere else.
Cue The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Indian Summers, The Indian Doctor, The 100 Foot Journey etc.,…The Empire’s history of colonial genocides and disgraces flattened into hour long specials of surface, of brown people smiling, white wooden porches and period costume, whimsical migrations to Europe, family tussles and pleasant holidays, to the good ol’ days.
_____British people aren’t racist! Just look at how we’re confronting our past with a gritty and yet convivial Danny Boyle aspect. Like the Olympic opening ceremony, we showcase how we hope we look to ourselves and to the world, rather than what we actually are.
_____And the show must go on. Dishoom! Kings Cross’ latest Indian cuisine curry spot in Granary Square. One of the most unusual and I suppose, experiential, restaurants I’ve ever visited, if the kind of experience you enjoy is a fabricated impression of an early 20th century first-class waiting lounge on the set of Carry On! Bombay. The menus are printed on yellowed paper made to look like a train timetable, the room is sprinkled with quaint age-distressed photo frames of anonymous Indian faces and civilising khaki shirted Brits, slowly spinning wicker fans and demure wooden paneling, tiled floors, painted Sanskrit on the toilet cubicles, and a suspended station clock, looming.
_____Whether the restaurant authentically reproduces the welcoming and egalitarian “spirit of the old Irani cafés of Bombay” as its website attests, is not a question I am close to being equipped to answer. But in the context of Granary Square, its relentless aestheticising of history in the pursuit of an apolitical place of capital, control and exchange – how could it?
_____You should go and take a look for yourself. But before you do, notice the door next to the entranceway. “Not Main Entry Here,” in a vintage mid-century, Keep Calm typeface. Instead of the plain and grammatically correct “Exit”, or “Please use the other door” or “Not the Main Entrance” – presumably, we’re supposed to read this odd syntax inside our heads in the voice of some Bombay lackey, who whilst waiting on your table and delivering your fifth Singapore Sling, has tried to direct you away from the exit. But in their broken English (typical!!) they’ve gone and mangled the sentence order a little bit. Meanwhile you give a knowing smile in your pith helmet and tap your sabre on the tiles impatiently.
_____Luckily, if you’re not racist enough to construct this imagined scenario and colonial fantasy for yourself, when the restaurant was being built, someone was ordered to painstakingly glue vinyl letter sticker – after vinyl letter sticker – after vinyl letter sticker – on to this door, knowingly, and construct it for you.
Back in the centre of Granary Square, each of the 1080 fountain jets are ejecting an orchestrated and precise routine. The children playing in the water are watched by their families, who are watched by an unnecessary but nonetheless present security team. A cohort of prospective students arrive at Kings Cross station, and successfully funnel themselves five minutes through the billboard corridor to the square. The seating is surfboard sloped and uncovered; nowhere to shade from the sun, shelter from the rain, or sleep in the evening. All of these ways of being are subtly reproduced – the children are learning what to expect from the public space, the students are learning what to expect from higher education, and the public are construction lines, half-erased.