Alternatives in EUtopia
British architects and urbanists, at least the more ‘off-message’ ones, are keen to contrast the difficulties of working in the UK with the very different approach to planning in Old Europe, especially Northern Europe – the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia – where these things are taken more seriously. Is it possible that we could find there a way of rebuilding cities that is not just aesthetically superior, but also more equitable? One scheme I visited in summer 2010 seemed at first to be absolutely everything that British urban redevelopment is not. I was invited there by one of its local critics, mostly because I had published some harsh criticism of the gentrified new modernism of British cities, but at first all I could see were the differences – the ways in which a different planning system and building industry were obviously far more capable of creating viable, attractive, enjoyable and architecturally convincing pieces of city than the British were. The similarities became more visible only later.
This was in Germany, a useful example, given that during the boom the Federal republic was regarded as a retrograde Keynesian dinosaur, what with its large welfare state, industrial base and reluctance to reform and deregulate. Accordingly, German commentators have been justifiably smug as they watch their Anglo-Saxon antagonists fall into chaos and collapse. ‘HafenCity Hamburg’ is Germany’s largest regeneration scheme, although mercifully they don’t use that word. It comprises a huge swathe of former wharfs, but the differences with Anglo-Saxon dockland schemes are as interesting as their similarities. Both basically serve the same constituency – an urban middle class. HafenCity is not particularly concerned with being hip or ‘vibrant’, as it houses a disproportionate percentage of Hamburg’s affluent pensioners. This isn’t as odd as it sounds, as it’s the only clean, safe, and perhaps more importantly, quiet space in the centre of Hamburg. In planning terms it’s certainly not a chaotic Thatcherite free-for-all, but something very careful. It is centred around a public landscaping project – here by Benedetta Tagliabue ’s firm EMBT – which weaves together a series of small plots each given to a separate architectural firm for houses or flats, along strips of dockside. These form the ‘background’ to some more wilful stand-alone architecture around the edges.
EMBT’s landscaping is far and away the most original part of HafenCity. Especially choice are the lamp-posts, which swing around tracing peculiar metallic waves, perhaps so as not to have any bourgeois strung from them (Hamburg has more millionaires than any other German city, as well as a very active and disputatious anarchist left). The seating in particular, moulded, concrete and Gaudiesque, is very well-used, and any fears that the place might be desolate or depopulated because of its class homogeneity are patently groundless – even unfinished, HafenCity is a massive tourist draw, with open-top buses passing over a steel dock bridge that was formerly closed to the public.
I’ve been told that buyers at the Glasgow Harbour development, a comparable scheme, complained about the view of the Govan Shipyards. HafenCity, however, is practically built around a working harbour, and glories in it – each expensive apartment has a view of the container cranes, refinery and passing ships. It’s as if it wants to encourage you to see as spectacle something usually hidden away from view. Accordingly, the office blocks which are mixed in with the flats are sometimes occupied by the shipping companies – to see a name like China Shipping, usually emblazoned upon a container, emblazoned upon a building, is a jolt. The building itself, designed like much of HafenCity by mild modernists Bothe richter Tehrani, is a typical part of the complex, a piece of sleek, unromantic modernism, modelled like all of these blocks with sharp overhangs, presumably as a gesture against the North German climate. Each block is self-contained, but all are of a similar height, rectitude and expense, achieving the rare thing of a city that emerged all at once while being both coherent and diverse, at least to the eye. The individual structures are detailed in a variety of styles, with vaguely Hanseatic/ expressionist clinker, Miesian steel, bright render and so forth, in order to give the effect of variety within carefully controlled parameters. It’s all very Teutonic.
The foreground buildings are less careful, and make clear how mistaken it would be to think this a purely social democratic piece of urbanism. Each row ends with a tower. One is ‘Coffee Plaza’, by American architect Richard Meier, another is a building for Unilever by Behnisch Architekten, evocative not so much of a robust Hanseatic modernism but more of Brazilian maestro Oscar Niemeyer, with flowing, feminine biomorphic curves. It consists of both offices and penthouses, and is advertised here as ‘Marco Polo Tower – design for Millionaires’. By far the most expensive and controversial project in HafenCity is Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie. It is a large swooping thing at the end of one of these rectilinear streets, completely ignoring their context of neatness and self-effacement. It is, respectively, a hotel, a car park, luxury penthouses and a concert hall, this last a preposterous Caspar David Friedrich thing billowing and crashing atop a 1960s warehouse. It was not initially part of the HafenCity plan at all; it was the private project of two local ‘business leaders’ who personally commissioned Herzog & de Meuron to draw up a ‘landmark’ scheme for the site, claiming that they would pay for the execution, holding many fundraising dinners among Hamburg millionaires in order to do so. Needless to say it soon went over budget, and the bill was offloaded onto Hamburg city council. The cost has risen over fivefold, and is hence a matter of some controversy. When I looked at the construction site of the Elbphilharmonie, rather than high-rent high-spec apartments for millionaires, I could see ads for bedsits, aimed at the building workers who are erecting this enormously complex edifice. They are at least going cheap, although the rate ‘per person/night’ implies that they aren’t supposed to stay there very long. Many are in both German and Polish, so readable by the workers from New Europe who are actually building the place.
As a town planning project, it forms a chastening contrast with the sort of schemes you will find in this book. Hamburg is not much richer than Edinburgh, yet it’s hard to believe HafenCity was designed by the same species that redeveloped Leith Docks. The place is a thumping indictment of the Birmingham Canalside, Bristol Harbourside, Belfast Laganside, London Docklands, all of which were trudged through for the purposes of the book you hold in your hand. As enjoyable public space, as urbanism contiguous with the existing city, as architecture, their equivalent in Hamburg is immeasurably superior, and any British councillor, planner or architect visiting the North German city would be well within their rights to fall to their knees and weep. All this masks the fact that HafenCity is the exact same place as Bristol Harbourside et al. It is a place which caters for, as the slogan goes, the ‘1%’. It has been commissioned by and for the ruling class. In order to get planning permission for such a project in a Social Democrat city, there are sops: a small percentage of ‘affordable’ units, public access, a University expansion and a U-Bahn extension, but these are minor differences, some of which you could find in the UK anyway. It’s the precise same typology – mixed-use redevelopment of a former industrial area, with only the most insecure, casual labour left for the former industrial classes. I dare say there’s less buy-to-let speculating and more renting, and suspect it is all much more carefully managed, but the basic ideology is not different. New Labour tried to make neoliberalism look nicer, and failed miserably, largely because they tried to create a social democratic city using Thatcherite methods. The Germans are constructing an unambiguously capitalist city using social democratic, or at least Keynesian methods – public investment, tightly controlled long-term planning, very little speculation. In the last instance, here too, the public purse ends up paying for the follies of the super-rich. But it really does look nicer.
Agency (1): A Corporate Headquarters for Collectivists
The problem with expecting alternatives to emerge from the practice of architects or from the town planning of less casino-based economies is that they’re still tied to the dominant orthodoxy, whether out of choice or otherwise. Returning, reluctantly as ever, to the UK, we can find three groups, three forces, which are able and willing to resist the extreme neoliberalism of the Tory–Whigs, and who could eventually become the pioneers, the clients, even, of a more equitable society. The problem with imagining the city we might want, of prospecting around for solutions, is always one of agency. You can propose it, fine. Who will build it, or at least, who will force the changes necessary for it to happen? I have three answers here, which are Trade Unions, Students, and the young Unemployed. They have all, in the last two years, made their own interventions into urban space, all of a very different order.
In summer 2011, I visited the new London headquarters of Unison. Although they don’t, funnily enough, tend to be considered part of the Big Society, trade unions are still, by an overwhelming margin, the largest civil society organizations in the UK. The unions are voluntary, democratic, mutual, bottom-up, and yet they’re the very obverse of ‘localism’, philanthropy and the other current shibboleths. Membership might have declined since its late 1970s peak, and a series of amalgamations might have swallowed up many of the once-influential unions, with even the fearsome Transport and General Workers Union absorbed into Unite – but membership still stands at seven million, which puts the much-vaunted likes of, say, London Citizens in the shade. And paradoxically, the frontal attacks on public-sector unions from the coalition have revealed their unexpected strength, whether in the half a million who marched in London on 26 March or the 750,000 or so strikers who walked out during just one of the several public-sector strikes.
The largest, along with Unite, of today’s amalgamated super-unions, the public-sector union Unison have just begun occupying the first purpose-built trade union headquarters to have been erected in the UK for nearly thirty years, in King’s Cross, London. While as a piece of architecture it’s quite deliberately unspectacular, Squire and Partners’ building shows a face of the trade union movement that is seldom seen. The stereotypes of donkey jackets, gavel-bashing and brawny masculinity are wholly absent – instead, this is quite consciously an exercise in branding and modernization. It suggests what the 1997–2010 era’s Blairite buildings might have been like if Labour had remained a socialist party. It’s a fascinating, occasionally rather inspiring place. But the first thing to note about the Unison building is what it is not.
Oddly, given their once pivotal and still key role in British political life, trade unions have not always been major sponsors of architecture. The most famous union building is in Central London, in the form of David Aberdeen’s Congress House for the TUC, a very expensively detailed Corbusian palazzo, with a Jacob Epstein sculpture and craftsmanlike finishes. It is one of several in the Bloomsbury/King’s Cross area, near to the termini serving the North and the Midlands, traditionally the unions’ strongholds. Even now, the NUJ, Unite and others are nearby. Also in the area is the original headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers, a stripped classical building now occupied by University College. The NUM moved out of here even before their fateful defeat in the Miners’ Strike of 1984–5, to a purpose-built headquarters designed by Malcolm Lister – relocated to Sheffield, as a gesture of distrust to Union leadership’s tendency to get cosy with the Great Wen. It was left unfinished at the end of the strike. Unison’s tower is almost certainly the first of its kind since then. The two have a passing stylistic similarity, both centring on severe columns as a slightly strained metaphor for mutual support. It’s worth remembering that the Unison chief, Dave Prentis – not exactly known as a firebrand – has said of the current wave of public-sector strikes that it will be unlike the Miners’ Strike, as ‘this time we’ll win’.
The air of siege and conspiracy that all this might imply is conspicuous by its absence; no union barons or smoke-filled rooms to be seen. Michael Poots, the project architect at Squire and Partners, calls it a ‘corporate headquarters’; Unison’s site manager John Cole speaks of a ‘bold high-street frontage’, and both talk about it as a form of branding, a statement of what trade unions are in the twenty-first century. Cole contrasts it with the office block Unison previously occupied just across the road, a large, slit-windowed concrete tower which he refers to as the ‘East European grey concrete building’. The union had considered moving to the City of London (before deciding that ‘culturally, it didn’t quite fit’), but decided to stay near to other unions and to the termini for the North. But happenstance has meant that the new Unison building directly faces the old. Originally designed for the local government union NALGO, one of those that merged into Unison, Cole says of the old HQ now that ‘it was basically a concrete tower block’, although this is also a fair description of the most obvious element in the new Unison building. To the Euston road, it is a concrete-clad, steel-framed tower, with a mild case of the barcode façades and a rhythm of different window heights; but this becomes more complex at the rear and the side, where that corporate symbol, a glass atrium, links it to the listed Arts and Crafts Elizabeth Garrett Anderson building, a former women’s hospital, and at the back, a small cluster of housing. It’s a complex more than a singular building, although this is hardly apparent from the laconic street frontage, where the most notable moment is the aforementioned branding: a large UNISON logo at the top and at the entrance, manifesting the purpose-built nature of the project, and announcing the union’s public presence.
The main bulk of the complex is the office block in the tower, spilling into the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson building, and curiously it’s here that the difference between this place and any other corporate headquarters is most apparent. On one level, it’s a question of rhetoric. you find the brightly coloured sloganeering that adorned some Blairite structures, but the content is very different. Instead of, say, AHMM’s Westminster Academy and its Mandelsonian mantra of ‘Enterprise, Global Citizenship, Communication’, each room features the rather more meaty, contentious ‘Solidarity, Participation, Democracy, Equality’. What would once have been called ‘improving quotations’ are also littered around the building, with ‘everything from Mahatma Gandhi to Billy Bragg’ etched into glass doors and internal windows. Most memorably, given that the UK has, as Tony Blair once proudly pointed out, the most repressive labour laws in the Western world, one wall comes courtesy of Michael Foot: ‘Most liberties have been won by those who broke the law’. All this heated (albeit graphically soft-toned and lower-case) rhetoric has to have some sort of correspondence to how the building actually functions. Given that the organization exists at least in part to fight for better working conditions, it had to be ‘an exemplary working environment’. And here Unison are clearest about the old NALGO building’s limitations. Not only was it dark and lit by artificial light, John Cole also points out that it had ‘no social spaces’. Now, the union ‘wanted large floor plates’ in order to be able to create these areas. In the concrete tower block, there’s a very pleasant roof garden, a café, a crèche, a ‘breakout room’ and much else. In design terms, these aims are compromised a little by the rather cold, identikit corporate detailing. Cole comments that opulence was out of the question, as ‘we have lots of low-paid members’ (something that didn’t deter the designers of Congress House in the 1940s) but there’s no doubt that the spaces work. When walking around it I chance upon a small office get-together, with crisps and what is (euphemistically?) labelled ‘juice’. One comments that in three days in the new building, she’d met six fellow Unison employees she’d never met before. ‘It shows how a building can change things’.
Most of the workers I saw here were women, and the building seems – perhaps inadvertently – to reflect where trade unions are currently strongest, in poorly paid but traditionally ‘white-collar’ jobs, largely female, and highly computer-literate. In the face of accusations that unions are lumbering pre-modern dinosaurs, Cole points out that Unison has the largest intranet in Europe, and Michael Poots lists with equal pride the building’s impeccable environmental credentials. Given the evident success of the internal arrangements and the lightness and airiness of the place, it’s a shame that its design language stays at such a low voltage.
That’s something which becomes especially clear with the transition to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson building. This late-nineteenth-century hospital was closed in 2002, with its functions transferred to nearby University College Hospital. The complex required a complete restoration of its much smaller, cosier rooms, with the original tiles and fireplaces scrupulously pieced back together. Sometimes this leads to enjoyably surreal juxtapositions, as when a vaguely art nouveau fireplace sits unused in the corner of a video conference room. Irrespective of the TUC’s brief foray into high modernism, the most famous visual image of trade unionism is deeply Arts and Crafts-influenced – the embroidered trade union banners that are still carried on marches, where the aesthetics of William Morris socialism, in a pre-branding era, still have a vivid emotional role. Framed with foliage, symmetrically organized and allegorical, sometimes you even find architectural modernism immortalized on them. One rMT banner I spotted on a protest a few months ago was centred on an image of Charles Holden’s Arnos Grove station. This powerful language is at least partly present in the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson building. In its main room, which is being adapted as a museum, with interactive exhibits on feminism, the health service and trade unionism, there is remade Arts and Crafts furniture (that you can sit on, for once) and a small library stocked with the likes of Friedrich Engels, Mary Wollstonecraft and Sheila Rowbotham. If the rest of the building avoids traditional notions of what trade unionism looks like, here there’s a reminder, and it’s a quietly powerful one. Perhaps this is a project which needed rhetoric and imagery as much as clarity and spaciousness. While Squire and Partners clearly took the place very seriously, a more nonconformist firm might have reconciled the traditional and forward-looking impulses of the union in a more forthright, convincing, dialectical way. Instead, the pretty but mute faceted roof of the atrium provides the main connection. Maybe the commission should have been given to the radical Postmodernists at FAT.
The atrium also leads the pedestrian towards the housing that was demanded by planning – deceptively so, as there is no public access. It’s a decent, unspectacular, stock-brick scheme of houses and flats, ‘mixed’ as ever, and clearly demarcated between the private element facing one way and the ‘social’ side the other, with both quite aggressively gated from the street. You’re reminded that the context is the redevelopment of Somers Town and King’s Cross, a working-class, industrial area of dense council housing undergoing severe gentrification, from commercial architects HOK’s BioMed Centre behind the British Library, that was fiercely opposed by local campaigners who pointed out that the site was zoned as social housing, to the new St Pancras International or the King’s Place commercial development. It’s the sort of area where unions used to thrive, now being completely transformed. The Unison building shows trade unionism transforming in turn, and in that, it’s an optimistic, encouraging building, an enclave of sobriety and solidarity in amidst the Regen tat. It stands its ground, quietly.