A New Kind of Bleak

Journeys Through Urban Britain

by Owen Hatherley

6 September 2012

Photo found on Creative Lancashire.org (photographer unknown) 

Agency (2): The Students Take the Squares

Sometimes, the self-referential, apolitical world of architecture intersects with politics in unexpected ways. In the same week as the student occupations spread, on the same day as the ‘Day x 2’ demonstration organized by student protesters against cuts and fee rises, there was a story in the local and architectural press that summed up much of what the students were fighting against.

This was the granting of planning permission to something called ‘The Quill’, a tower of student housing aimed by developers at students from King’s College. It’s a fine example of contemporary architectural idiocy, a lumpen glass extrusion full of clumsy symbolism – the flurry of steel spikes that gives it its name is ‘inspired by the literary heritage of Southwark’ – but it’s a reminder that students are far from the privileged, cloistered group that some present them as. It’s the obnoxiously detailed tip of an iceberg, of the pile-up of awful student housing that has resulted from the partial privatization of education. Developers have made large quantities of money out of some of the bleakest housing ever built in the UK, marketing it as student accommodation usually on sites which would otherwise be allotted to ‘luxury flats’ or other ‘stunning developments’. Student-oriented property developers like Unite (no relation) and the amusingly named Liberty Living are, amongst other things, revivalists of the prefabricated construction methods favoured by the more parsimonious councils in the 1960s, and their blocks, all with attendant ‘aspirational’ names – Sky Plaza in Leeds, Grand Central in Liverpool – recall the worst side of modernism, in their cheapness, blindness to place, and total lack of architectural imagination. Inside, they’re a matter of box rooms leavened by en-suite bathrooms, charging outrageous rents; the most apparently ‘luxurious’ of them, the skyscraping Nido Spitalfields, charges £1,250 a month for each of its self-described ‘cubes’.

They’re also a reminder that students were encouraged under New Labour to be an ideal combination of indentured serfs and aspirant yuppies; the actual conditions of students’ existence in the 2000s, from the poverty of their housing, to their catastrophic debt, to their part-time jobs in call centres, to their years of unpaid intern labour, were bleak indeed; but all was hidden by an oxymoronic language of inclusivity and privilege; you might be living in a cupboard, but it’s a cupboard with a plasma screen TV; you might seem to be underpaid, overworked and tithed, but you were constantly reminded how lucky you were to be able to enjoy the hedonistic student lifestyle. Suddenly, under the Tory–Whig coalition, one half of that bargain – the expansion of education that accompanied its part-privatization – has disappeared, and we’re now witnessing the fallout. So it’s worth keeping New Labour’s student architecture – desperately private, paranoid, gated, restricted, securitized – in mind when you consider the dozens of occupations of universities and public buildings that were such an important part of the student protests. Implicitly or explicitly, this is the kind of space they are reacting against. A protest against the coalition, to be sure; but it’s also a magnificent rejection of the fear, quietism and atomization that was the result of earlier policies. Their use of space is equally fearless.

The first major explosion around the programme of drastic education cuts – well before the trebling of fees was announced – was at the University of Middlesex in April 2010. The coalition’s aggressively philistine and class-driven rhetoric was amply foreshadowed here, in the closing of the college’s most successful programme: its Continental Philosophy department, a programme encouraging critical thinking which was clearly considered surplus to requirements at an ex-Polytechnic orienting itself towards Business, or lucrative overseas campuses in Dubai and Mauritius, spreading itself to the ‘emerging economies’ like any architectural firm. The interesting thing about Middlesex University is how totally decentralized and suburban it is, a series of disconnected outposts in several outer North London boroughs, and it’s just possible the various actions suggest what can, and possibly can’t, be done to politicize these places, so far from the metropolitan idea of protest as something which happens in highly symbolic central locations (Parliament Square, Whitehall, Millbank). The first occupation took place at Trent Park, the campus where the Philosophy Department was based, in one of those places where the ‘green belt’ instituted around London in the 1930s can be seen to not be entirely fictional. The advertisements for Middlesex courses at nearby tube stations are a literal facialization of the neoliberal student as a series of demands, alternately hedonistic and utilitarian, and always grimly conformist. Headed by ‘I want to be more employable’, it continues thus: ‘I want to be the best. I want to do my own thing. I want to excel. I want to go to the gym. I want to study business law. I want to see West End shows. I want business sponsorship.’ And with particular bathos: ‘I want to see what’s possible.’

For over a week, Trent Park became a ‘Transversal Space’, which is to say a Free University, with speeches and actions taking place inside the usual University spaces. The thing with Middlesex, and what made it so unlike occupations at SOAS or LSE, is that the place is already the model of the neoliberal university – totally dispersed, totally atomized, with no particular Traditions of Glorious rebellion. If, as Mark Fisher argued in his book Capitalist Realism, the 2006 student protests over employment laws in France were easily presented as conservative attempts to retain privileges, Middlesex, and the protests of winter 2010, are the exact opposite – rather, they are what happens when an already neoliberalized student body tries to politicize itself. If, as Middlesex Occupation banners insisted, this particular University is a factory, like the factory it has learnt one of the principal lessons of the twentieth century – if you want to avoid conflict, decentralize, get out as far away from the (imagined) centres of power as possible, disappear from public view, and make the question of who actually holds power as opaque as possible.

The second part of the actions which I saw some of was a rally in Hendon, an area which is somewhat less exurban, and where you can actually walk to the campus, from Hendon Central tube. The University’s administrative offices sit opposite some particularly horrible developer-led student housing; the guilty party here is ‘Servite Homes’, who are just one letter away from accuracy. At Hendon, something seemingly familiar – a rally – was used as a convenient cover, a means of convincing authority that this was a situation they understood and could deal with easily, until it mutated into one they didn’t like one bit. In short, the event consisted of several speakers whose interventions were quickly followed by the instruction to ‘take the squares’, meaning the grass squares in front of the University, and set up a Tent Park, aka a ‘Camp for Displaced Academics’. The purpose of this seemed pretty opaque until students started erecting the tents on the space – several small ones to sleep in, and one large marquee, which was then draped with political banners, ranging from direct slogans, oblique pronouncements and at one point, some art-historical point-making, with banners adapting imagery from Paul McCarthy and others. The Middlesex protests ended in a partial victory, with the Philosophy Department and most of its students being taken on by (the equally suburban ex-Poly) Kingston University.

The tactics of surprise and spectacle used at Middlesex have a clear correspondence with those used by later Occupiers, albeit on a much larger scale. At the first major occupation, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, it was especially interesting to see the movement dealing with such a central location, right next to Russell Square, where it was much easier to reach a public of some sort than it was in Trent Park; the place has long had the feel of an activist enclave, and a large banner reading ‘THIS HAS JUST BEGUN’ flew for some time in front of the college. Somewhat larger, and for that and other reasons the focus of much of the publicity, was the Occupation of University College London, at the other end of Bloomsbury. As fans of Michel Foucault would appreciate, they picked the capacious Jeremy Bentham room for their operational base (‘Jeremy Says No!’ read one poster, depicting the eighteenth-century thinker; adjacent was another poster reading ‘Jeremy Also Says Panopticon’). The Slade, just opposite, soon followed them into occupation, as did countless other universities up and down the country, and both SOAS and UCL had a board listing those which had come out.

The spatial politics of the occupations themselves are obviously worth considering. From what I could see at UCL, the ten days of hundreds of people sleeping together in one very large room had brought a certain intensity to the proceedings, and had shown how much this was becoming not just a campaign to bring down a singularly grotesque millionaires’ austerity government, but also to imagine a new kind of everyday life. I was invited to speak here about student housing and the awfulness thereof. Afterwards, one of the assembled students said something along the lines of ‘yes, we know that’s awful, you don’t need to tell us – but we’re here creating something different, something positive, by ourselves. We’re living our ideas.’ It later transpired that the young man in question was a former Conservative who had worked for a while in the office of David Miliband, before getting radicalized. Let’s not forget that under New Labour, the front bench was largely occupied by Russell Group-educated student firebrands.

The student movement would have been of little interest if it were just confined to what is undeniably an elite university. What the UCL occupation were extremely adept at, however, was the use of both social media and the space itself to publicize their cause. Not only were they impressively media-savvy – in one corner of the room, a round table dotted with laptops, which bore the label ‘rESPONSE’, people were constantly sending out communiqués on Twitter and elsewhere – but they were also keen to use the space around to draw attention to their demands and those of the student movement in general. This was the rationale behind their involvement in UK Uncut pickets of Vodafone (who allegedly recently evaded £6 billion in tax) and of TopShop (whose boss Philip Green is both a prolific tax avoider and a coalition adviser, making a nonsense of the already outrageous slogan ‘We’re all in this together’). It was also the rationale behind one of their more inspired actions, a temporary occupation of Euston Station, where they also produced a parodic Evening Substandard, pre-empting the media’s hostility to them.

The student movement was astute in trying to avoid the tedium and predictability that marred the previous decade of protest in the UK, from the polite and for all its numbers easily ignored Stop the War protests in 2003, to the various sparsely attended ‘Carnivals against Capitalism’, usually easily ‘kettled’ and beaten by the police. On marches the students adopted tactics to avoid police kettles, leading to a chase through the streets of London on ‘Day x 2’, and many refused to follow the prescribed route into pre-prepared holding pens. By now, we know the response to this – the carnage of ‘Day x 4’, where a police force clearly out for revenge and a spectacularly servile media preferred to cover the mild harassment of two royals over, say, the police’s near-fatal attack on twenty-year-old student Alfie Meadows, or the dragging of Jody McIntyre, a student with cerebral palsy, out of his wheelchair and across the pavement. Yet throughout, this enormously unexpected and unpredictable movement showed it was willing to use the streets as it liked, a fine riposte to the grim, circumscribed, privatized urbanism of the last thirty years.

From this moment came, most obviously, the Occupy protests across British cities in autumn–winter 2011. There ’s another moment which grew from it, to some degree, though it is often disavowed. It arguably came from the protests against Education Maintenance Allowance, the grant which kept poor young people in post-16 education, who made the Day x marches a rather surprising affair for those expecting the usual, usually middle-class suspects. In Hackney in August 2011, a chant went up of ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’, a slogan long-used by the anti-capitalist left on their symbolic marches. The results were very different.

Agency (3), The City and the City

One of the most succinct and intelligent descriptions of ‘urban regeneration’ was a documentary film by Jonathan Meades called On the Brandwagon. It begins with riots in Liverpool in 1981, a city whose population had halved, whose docks had disappeared; then moves through the attempts to put a sticking plaster over the wound. First, ineptly, via the Garden Festivals bestowed to Liverpool or Ebbw Vale, alongside the first, ‘enterprise zone’ version of regeneration – then more dramatically through New Labour’s abortive attempt to turn our chaotic, suburban-urban cities into places more akin to, say, Paris, that riot-free model of social peace. Meades looks at the middle-class return to the cities, adaptive re-use, luxury apartment blocks, Mitterandian Lottery-funded grands projets and loft conversions in the factories whose closure was the problem in the first place. The film ends in Salford Quays, its gleaming titanium a ram-raid’s distance from some of the poorest places in Western Europe. The likely result? ‘There will be no riots within the ring-road.’

We’ve long congratulated ourselves, in London, on the fact that we have no banlieue. We felt especially smug about it when zoned, segregated Paris rioted a few years ago. It’s not like it’s untrue – irrespective of the existence of a Thamesmead or a Chelmlsey Wood, our poverty is not solely concentrated in peripheral housing estates, at least not yet. Oxford might try not to think about Blackbird Leys, but London, Manchester/Salford, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham – the cities that erupted in August 2011 – these places by and large have the rich next to the poor, £1,000,000 Georgian terraces next to estates with some of the deepest poverty in the EU. We’re so pleased with this that we’ve even extended the principle to how we plan the trickle-down dribble of social housing built over the last two decades, those Housing Association schemes where the deserving poor are ‘pepper-potted’ with stockbrokers. We’ve learnt about ‘spatial segregation’, so we do things differently now. Someone commenting on James Meek’s London Review of Books blog post on parallel Hackneys mentioned China Miéville’s recent science fiction novel The City and the City, where two cities literally do occupy the same space, with all inhabitants acting as if they don’t. He set it in Eastern Europe, but the inspiration is surely London.

All of us, all along, if we were honest for a microsecond, knew this was a ludicrous way to build a city, to live in a city. I, like most of the people who were waving brooms in the air post-riot and claiming to represent the ‘real London’, was not born in London, and I know only two or three people who were. In the earlier of the twelve years I’ve lived in the city I’d often idly wonder when the riots would come, when the situation of organic delis next to pound shops, of crumbling maisonettes next to furiously speculated-on Victoriana, of artists shipped into architect-designed Brutalist towers to make them safe for regeneration, of endless boosterist self-congratulation, would finally collapse in on itself. Like most thoughts of this sort, it stayed in the back of the mind, and I’d almost forgotten about it when it finally happened.

If you look at the looted, torched places, many of which are in this book, you can see they have certain things in common. Take Bristol, a port where you could walk for miles and wonder where its working class had disappeared to, which seemed to have been given over completely to post-hippy tourism, ‘subversive’ graffiti, students and shopping. Well, those invisible, young, ‘socially excluded’ (how that mealy-mouthed phrase suddenly seems to acquire a certain truth) people arrived in the shiny new Cabot Circus mall and took what they wanted, what they couldn’t afford, what they’d been told time and time again they were worthless without. Look at Woolwich, where the former main employer, the Arsenal, is now a vast development of luxury flats, and where efforts to ameliorate poverty and unemployment centre on a giant Tesco, just opposite the Jobcentre. Look at Peckham, where ‘Bellenden Village ’ pretends to be excited by the vibrant desperation of rye Lane. Look at Liverpool, where council semis rub up against the mall-without-walls of Liverpool One, whose heavy-security streets were claimed by the RIBA to have ‘single-handedly transformed Liverpool’s fortunes’, as if a shopping mall could replace the docks. Look at Croydon, where you can walk along the spotless main street of the privately owned, privately patrolled Business Improvement District and then suddenly find yourself in the rotting mess around West Croydon station. Look at Manchester’s city centre, the most complete regeneration showpiece, practically walled off from those living outside the ring road. Look at Salford, where Urban Splash sell terraces gutted and cleared of their working-class population to MediaCity employees, with the slogan ‘Own your own Coronation Street home’. Look at Nottingham, where private student accommodation looming over council estates features a giant advert promising a ‘Plasma screen TV in every room’. Look at Brixton, where Zaha Hadid’s hedge-funded Academy has a disciplinary regime harsher than some prisons, and aims to create little entrepreneurs and budding CEOs out of the lamentably unaspirational estate-dwellers. Look at Birmingham’s new Bullring, yards away from the scar of no-man’s land separating it from the dilapidated estates and empty light-industrial units of Digbeth and Deritend. This is urban Britain, and though the cuts have made it worse, the damage was done long before.

With his customary haplessness, Ed Miliband said during the riots that ‘there must be no no-go areas’. But these places are nothing of the sort: they’re parallel areas occupying exactly the same space, and any urban theory stuck in the problems of an earlier era, fulminating against the evils of mono-class estates and rigid zoning, is ill-equipped to even begin to describe what’s going on. That isn’t to say that all insights from history are useless. During the riots, an assortment of ex-punks, chroniclers of rebel rock, ‘Situationists’ and ‘leftists’ decided that these riots were somehow different, somehow apolitical, compared to those that went before. The bizarrely romanticized ‘no poperie’ Gordon riots. The Watts riots of 1965, where local shops were burned and ransacked with as much intensity as they were in August 2011, only with more firearms. The UK riots of 1981, when corner shops were not spared. The 1992 LA riots, where innocent truck drivers were dragged from their vehicles and killed. riots always start with an immediate grievance – a hugely corrupt police force shooting a man to death, this time – and become a free-for-all, where people exploit the absence of the law, in which the people who suffer are often innocent. Rioting is a politics of despair; but to claim that these riots are somehow different, somehow ‘neoliberal’, because of the allegedly novel phenomenon of mass looting, is asinine. It would have been wrong to cheer on rioters against corner shopkeepers trying to defend their already small livelihoods; but it is equally wrong to pretend that this had nothing to do with the demonization of the young and poor, nothing to do with our brutally unequal society and our pathetic trickle-down attempts at palliation. Then we line up with those who think that looting Foot Locker is worse than the looting of an entire economy.

Something snapped in August 2011, and it was a long time coming. If you listened to what those few rioters to have got near a journalist had to say – ‘The whole country is burning, man’; ‘We ’re showing the rich people we can do what we want ’; ‘They ’re screwing the system so only white middle-class kids can get an education ... everyone’s heard about the police and members of parliament taking bribes, the members of parliament stealing thousands with their expenses. They set the example. It’s time to loot’ – what you heard was an excuse, sure, but also a truth. Over the last few years, the ruling class kept trying to commit suicide – financial crisis, expenses scandal, News International, the Met, financial crisis mark two – and most of us wouldn’t let them, we ’d rather Keep Calm and Carry On. These kids, venal and stupid as some of their actions obviously are, don’t want to carry on. They want to see the whole bloody thing burn.

Back to Business

Not that this seems to have had much immediate effect. I live in Woolwich, where among the burnt-out (or in one case completely destroyed) buildings appeared a hoarding headed ‘BACK TO BUSINESS’, promising a mega-Tesco, a Travelodge, and imminent royal Borough status as panaceas for the poverty and frustration that led to the riots. It may as well have been headed ‘WE REFUSE TO LEARN ANYTHING’. It could be a cipher for the way the country has responded to the crisis at large; from city councillors to homeowners, there appears to be a widespread hope that if we can get the property bubble reinflated, 2007 will be here all over again and the whole bloody cycle will start up again. You can feel this especially acutely in London, where the property crash was so brief that in the city’s richer areas, it’s impossible to detect any change between London-in-recession and London-in-Boom. That, at least, is the main thing that, say, Knightsbridge has in common with, say, Woolwich. So change is happening, if it is happening, very slowly in British cities. There is still a feeling of inertia and hopelessness that has not, yet, been entirely shaken off. This book is about an interregnum, a time in which the new has not yet been born. The Tory–Whigs have not created a specifically new space; nothing has been built in the new Enterprise Zones, few Free Schools have been planned, no Localist housing schemes are on the drawing board. These may well emerge, but they are unlikely to even begin to rival the urban changes wreaked under New Labour. I attempt to search for the coalition’s space, to some degree, although there is much more evidence for the effects of their negligence of existing space, their deliberate strangling of the cities, and more than anything else evidence of the swift dereliction that has overtaken the spaces of the outgoing regime. However, this is a book much more concerned with looking for previous urban alternatives, partly as possible inspiration, partly as a reminder that things now considered impossible were once considered normal.

Like the earlier A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain it is based on ‘Urban Trawl’, a regular feature I wrote for the architectural magazine Building Design, a series of architectural travelogues through British cities during the Great recession. In these essays those cities are seen as political spaces subject to the changes in the British economy from the post-war settlement to the Thatcher-Blair consensus, as spaces where the movements in architectural theory from modernism to post-modernism and back have had profound and complex effects, and as spaces where the self-image of rural Albion can be tested against the urban and suburban reality. This book is entirely a continuation of that project, though I hope I can be understood without prior acquaintance. The first Urban Trawl was to a large degree an unrequested and mostly unrequited love letter to the great cities of the North5 – Cardiff, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Glasgow – and the many criticisms I had were offset by a genuine awe at these often wonder-filled cities. The places discussed in the second Urban Trawl are not, often, quite of the same order. There ’s a lot more of the South and the Midlands, a lot more in general of the ‘Middle England’ that all politics in the UK is based on courting. Britain’s First and Second Cities receive return journeys, but the rest have mostly been virgin territory for me.

Because of this it may often seem a grim book, one that concentrates perhaps overmuch on the gory details of some extremely unlovely places, though it is my contention that it’s often here where ways out may be found. As a counterbalance to Middle England, there is a lot more focus on Scotland, a seeming alternative space within the United Kingdom itself, which accordingly may not be in the Union for too much longer. Large cities do feature in this book, but they are not its principal focus. Edinburgh, Bristol, Birmingham, London, none are places that hold out a great deal of hope, in my account; but we could find glimpses of potential new worlds in Leicester, Cumbernauld, Lincoln or Coventry. This book is in roughly chronological order, taking as I took them journeys undertaken between October 2010 and February 2012. Given the indigestibility of these investigations into Britain’s urban space, it may be best to approach the work as separate portions – discrete journeys to the North’s second-rank towns, to the West Midlands, the South West, the extensions of London, the East Midlands, and then the ‘Celtic Fringe’ – rather than trying to swallow it whole. The earlier Urban Trawls were accompanied by photographs from a Bradfordian friend; his photographs are here replaced with my own less professional efforts, along with biro drawings by a fellow denizen of the West riding, Brighouse ’s Fra Angelico of Brutalism, Laura Oldfield Ford. She also put herself through a few of the journeys.

While the first Urban Trawls were mostly undertaken with a man who often knew British cities better than I did, around half of this book is based on travels with my partner Agata Pyzik, a Polish writer whose prior expectations of proper European urbanity were a constant source of shame, as I faced her incredulity at the chaos we’d made of our cities, her shock that Empire and First World wealth had managed to create such squalor. I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to convince her that urban Britain does have certain qualities of its own, and if I failed with her, I hope to have better luck with the reader.

We will begin, as befits a period of indeterminacy and interregnum, with a monument to the old regime, to its most sweeping project of recolonization, redevelopment and the production of new space. After that miserable, abandoned present, we will try and find some solace in both the past and the future.

Photo by Agata Pyzik

Photo by Agata Pyzik

Owen Hatherley is the author of the acclaimed Militant Modernism, a defense of the modernist movement, and A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. He writes regularly on the political aesthetics of architecture, urbanism and popular culture for a variety of publications, including Building Design, Frieze, the Guardian and the New Statesman. He blogs on political aesthetics at Nasty Brutal and Short.

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