In comparison to practically every other city I’ve visited or lived in, London is marked by its relative lack of social and economic segregation. In parts of the city council housing estates border million pound mansions, sturdy Victorian terraces sit up against flimsy post-war prefabs. There has come into being in the last century a democracy of geography that few other cities have. Destruction caused by war, the changing economic nature of the city, the decline of long established industries, the changing purpose of sites, the rise and fall of social utopianism, all have contributed to a beautiful urban patchwork.
This seems to be increasingly under threat however, a consequence of London’s burgeoning property market, and what in many cases seems to be a sort of unholy alliance between developers and local councils. Together theyoften move on spaces and structures that seem to be faltering, in the same way some carnivores can unerringly sense the weakest animal in a herd. Except this predation is called redevelopment. That prefix ‘re’ is significant because in most cases the land is already occupied with people, often viewed as being in a lesser state of development, and who must first be removed before the critical process of ‘re’ developing can begin. In most cases development is rather incongruously preceded by total destruction.
The Heygate Estate in Elephant Castle is a case in point, a significant piece of inner city, post-war social housing which by most accounts was systematically undermined through a combination of council mismanagement and misinformation. By the start of the new millennium the estate’s reputation was so low that few with any influence would resist its demolition. Those who lived in the estate, many of whom felt differently, were ‘decanted’ to new homes in strange, distant communities. In the coming years Heygate will be demolished, and over two and a half thousand new apartments are due to be constructed by council appointed multinational Lend Lease Group. Less than eighty will consist of council rented social housing.
The very idea of inner city under-privilege itself seems to be under threat, no bad thing you might think, except as the Heygate leaseholder displacement map indicates the under-privilege is only being driven further out of the city. The urban center instead becomes ever more clearly a locus of financial, cultural and political power, and those most connected to the manufacture and exercise of this powers are drawn ever more tightly together. The poor and powerless are displaced by these new arrivals, driven to the nether regions of the city where they are largely invisible. They become not much more than a convinient source of labour, and perhaps a pliable market.
The loss is not just human. The architectural fabric, that patchwork which so utterly defines London is also under threat. The derelict landmarks of bygone industries, the ambiguous parks of urban wasteland are gradually replaced with forgettable new developments. A reasonable and inevitable change one might imagine, empty buildings and wasteland have no use, but perhaps they have value even in their un-use, as modern day monuments, ruins of the recent past and testaments to change. Describing the slow pace of construction in the past, Joseph Roth noted how once ‘everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as nowadays we live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively’. Ruins are reminders of the way of all things, including the developments of today, which will in due course be similarly reduced to rubble.
Perhaps as well as the baser motivation of money, this goes some way towards explaining the apparent zeal with which one generation of architects and urban planners lay waste to the efforts of their forerunners. If, in Freudian terms, the skyscraper is often rather crudely seen as a phallic symbol, the destructive impulses which necessarily precede construction perhaps represent the oedipal urges of one generation of architects to destroy the works of those previous to them. Works through which the new generation was brought into being, and in whose shadows these new efforts will long be discerned.