Behold the new (private) utopias

How London’s real estate farce is destroying communities

It is hardly a secret that I dislike modernism. My main reason is primarily aesthetic: I despise the look of concrete and abhor modernism’s brutal soul-less ness compared to the elegance of the “period” styles that preceded it. Bland functionality may have worked for modern cutlery and furniture, but I have found few people who prefer the concrete monstrosities built in the 60s and 70s over the gorgeous beaux arts or art deco masterpieces that that still tower majestically over great cities such as Paris, New York or London. Architecture is, after all, art for public spaces and eyesores have no intrinsic value other than to blight the beauty of our cities like oil spills do on our oceans.

Living the dream. Or are you?

Living the dream. Or are you?

However, there is another aspect about modernism that disturbs me and that is its utopianism. As a left-winger, I should in theory like the fact that these tower blocks were built with a more egalitarian society in mind and to better the lives of the poor and destitute who had to previously live in terraced slums. There was grand ambition in these designs, of walkways in the skies and communal playgrounds and access to thoroughfares in this new car age. Unfortunately, reality had a different future planned. Most of these social-democratic wonderlands ended up far from jobs and services and over time turned into crime-ridden hell-holes. The cold concrete exteriors also did not stand the test of time, leading to massive tower blocks looking dirty and dated just years after they sprung up. Looking at modernism with the benefit of hindsight, the utopia clearly failed.

Sadly, countries like Britain have had no answer for public housing in the post-modernist world. As Thatcherism closed the door on publicly-funded home-building, the task of filling the country’s housing needs for a growing population has fallen squarely on the private sector and they have not wasted a single second in finding ways to profit enormously. Taking their cue from the Docklands redevelopment that took place in the 1980s and 90s, these private builders have begun crafting a new type of utopia. A utopia of beige-bricked and waveform-roof developments, where half a million sterling gets you a 50 m2 two-bedroom if you’re lucky¬†(only one room which is actually livable for anyone beyond midget-size). Of creaky stairs and non-soundproofed walls hidden behind colorfully tiled balconies. Where the winds blow the air of self-importance of the aspirational middle classes who after years of work have finally managed to have a foothold on the property ladder in one of the dozens of new developments, nay, “communities” that are quickly becoming London’s new private paradises. Continue reading

There goes the neighborhood

Actually, it never existed except on a map and on a planner’s desk
If Canada Water really looked like this, I'd have stayed

If Canada Water really looked like this, I’d have stayed

A society can be judged by many things but few are as insightful and immediate as the physical spaces where we live. Be it the houses and apartments that house us, the public areas where we engage as a community, or the transportation networks that take us to where we need to go, the image of the city is a window to a society’s soul. Not all would agree, though. For Margaret Thatcher and the conservative revolution which she spawned, there was no such thing as society in the first place. But in Britain, the ritualistic destruction of society through bad urban design began well before the “Iron Lady” spoke that infamous line. This destruction, of course, was not limited to Britain: it was through the noxious spread of Le Corbusier modernism which blighted urban landscapes across the world with monolithic and brutalist obscenities whose only saving grace was that it they were one small step ahead of the slums which they replaced. But I’m not here to rant about the failure of social housing (I recently read the wonderful “Estates: An Intimate History” by Lynsey Hansey, and I doubt one can find a better left-wing critique out there), I’m here to rant about the failure of the private housing which replaced it in the 80s. And there’s no better place to start, than the little corner of London where I lived for three of my four years in Britain: Canada Water. Continue reading