London Under Strain

Douglas Murphy
Written to accompany the exhibition London Dust: Rut Blees Luxemburg and Keef Winter

Installation view, London Dust: Rut Blees Luxemburg and Keef Winter, Chandelier Projects

If there’s one word to describe what seems to be happening to London, it’s tightening. The retrospective impression one gets of the city, in previous generations, is of a certain looseness. Despite the imposition of the green belt, an area of protected countryside to the edge of the city designated to prevent a further spread of the deadening suburbia of the 1930s, there was a flexibility to post-WWII London which seems remarkable to today’s eyes. There were still large bomb sites across the city being gradually filled in by new developments such as the Barbican, whose futuristic slabs and towers to this day present us with a convincing vision of a future city. But the London that was still there, due to its dilapidation, its lack of facility, its very belonging to a worse past, was fair game. Plans came thick and fast for demolitions and redevelopments, for new housing and shopping and living areas, three-dimensional cities to replace the slums and rookeries that had persisted right into the white-heat of the 1960s. The fabric of that London was malleable in a way which is almost inconceivable now.

But there was a certain malleability to life as well. Not only in the sense of the opening up of youth cultures and alternative lifestyles in the 1960s, never more than a high-profile minority pursuit, but also in the general variety of life itself. Watch The London Nobody Knows, the 1967 film in which James Mason perambulates around the eccentricities of the city, encountering all kinds of odd people from meth-swilling drunks to eel merchants, in a city full of empty spaces and gaps to be filled. In the economic dire straits of the 1970s there was a surge in squatting, experimental living in spaces at the edge of official existence, where many areas became intimidating but open social landscapes of alternative life. At one point as many as 50,000 people, trots, hippies, punks, co-operatives, lived in abandoned properties around the capital.

The literature of psychogeographic trudgings which has become so prevalent since the 1990s has earned its popularity through investigations of the liminal - not just liminal spaces, the by now tired inventory of power lines over canals and abandoned warehouses, knackered car yards, flyover culture, but liminal lives: casts of misfits and molemen, scurrying around in the spaces left by other people’s lives, eccentrics just about thriving in the gaps. The gangster legends, the opium dens of the dockside laundries, these were all real places, real people, strange enough without the layering of occult symbols across them.

Tony Blair bought a house on Mapledene Road, Hackney for £40,000 in 1980. Above his house loomed the Holly Street estate, a system-built warren of concrete slab blocks and towers, poor as hell, a mess of burnt out flats, uncollected rubbish and pitbull shit. The Holly Street Estate is gone now, as are others like the New Kingshold or Trowbridge estates, as soon will be the Heygate Estate, triumphantly destroyed to make way for a private development of luxury investment opportuities. These and other areas of mass housing were effectively abandoned by the councils, leaving many in desperation, but also again creating spaces for other kinds of life, squatter housing networks, pirate radio stations, ravers and dropouts. Blair did the London thing of course, doubling his money by chipping off to Islington in 1986.

Did the tide turn when the 1968 redevelopment of Covent Garden was averted? Or was it when neo-Georgian dandies started buying out the Bangladeshi sweatshops of Spitalfields in the 80s, in order to reenact their goutish dinner parties? Maybe it was the Right to Buy, or Ken Livingstone’s later Faustian pact with the world of property and liquid capital? Whatever it was, the last rush into loose space happened in the 90s when the light industry of East London was ‘discovered’, but even that has since locked itself up.

London has been ratcheting itself ever tighter since. Every petrol station, every odd little warehouse, every gap between buildings, is bought up and turned into housing, fuelled by a market that stretches by 10% every year. Fire stations? Sold for luxury flats. Social housing? Demolished for luxury flats. In the ever-bloating City of London, forlorn 20th century office buildings make way for giant developments of super-space, millions of square feet of the same 1.5m grid, fans in the ceiling and electronics under the floor, completely flexible but inevitably stuffed by thousands upon thousands of traders, 1 every 8 square meters, stacked up in the sky behind sky-coloured glass.

Everything is growing but there’s less and less room to breathe, and every new tower has its own cutesy name: Gherkin, Shard, Walkie-Talkie, Cheese-Grater, Pinnacle - it’s like being mugged by toddlers. The crash of 2008 may have appeared to put a stop to it all, leaving unfinished lift shafts around the City like economic tombstones, but the boom is back, and the bubble is stretching.

Douglas Murphy is the author of The Architecture of Failure (Zero), and the forthcoming Last Futures (Verso). He is architecture correspondent for Icon Magazine, and writes for various publications including the Guardian, New Humanist, Frieze and Architectural Review.