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.
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.
The tricks of the trade
The strategy goes something like this. They find a large brownfield site of some derelict Victorian-era dockyards or warehouses. They buy it. They then design a sassy plan for a mixed-use development with numerous mid-rises (with perhaps a glitzy high-rise to crown it) and townhouses with private green areas sprinkled around or within. They say 40% will be “affordable homes”, which in practice means 10% (or 0%) since they always end up convincing local councils that they’ll be unprofitable any other way. It’s going to be dotted with retail space for all your favorite high street brands. You know, the same ones you’ll find pretty much everywhere and which have turned Britain’s high streets into veritable clones of each other. Gym is a must; a pool if they’re feeling generous. They will, of course, make some amazing 3D renders of the common areas teeming with life, as good-looking young professionals and families walk around and enjoy the continental lifestyle of open air cafes (probably a Costa or Nero) and restaurants (anything that passes for the non-existent British casual dining scene).
They will then describe it using the words and phrases that have become so commonplace as to become completely meaningless in the UK real estate scene. Luxury flats. Exclusive lifestyle. Building communities. Makes you feel good, doesn’t it? Never mind that you’ll be lucky if there’s actually a concierge and a decent lobby, let alone a doorman (the stuff that in most cities actually defines luxury and exclusivity; even middle-class apartments in NYC typically have these amenities). In fact, the entrance is probably just a keycard reader and a hall to the elevators, something not too dissimilar to your undergrad dorms except ten times more expensive. Oh, did I mention that it’s 50 m2 for a two-bedroom? In modern London parlance, two bedroom basically means one room fit for human habitation, and one shoebox room to put all the junk you’ve accumulated thinking one day you’d be able to afford a place half as big as you parents’.
Let’s go back to the building communities bit, as that’s the whole point of this post. Every single modern London development waxes lyrical about how it’s not just a bunch of flats but a “community”, a point that is highlighted by the fact that the development probably ends with the word Village. But what exactly is this PR-defined utopia? A bunch of these flats (the more expensive ones) may end up being snatched up by foreign buyers for investment purposes. You’ll never see them. Many of the multi-bedroom flats and houses will be bought and split up to be rented. Your utopian new build community will find you sandwiched in the middle of Chinese students and young professional flat-sharers. You may never speak to them ever except to tell them to quiet down because you can hear their chattering at 1am across the cardboard walls that separate you. In fact, you’ll probably hate them, fueling your already existing misery of living so far from your job (because you could only afford Zone 3 and up) and realizing that far from being “exclusive”, everything around you is a near carbon copy of everything that’s around everyone else.
Why did this disaster happen? Because cities are meant to be organic, not planned. Modernism destroyed communities because they uprooted them; what these new developments are doing is something similar except they’re substituting the bulldozer for a fancy 3D render and showcase apartment. They’re making you uproot yourself. For a city with so much history and visual appeal as London, this is nothing short of an urbanistic tragedy and stands in stark contrast with the experience of some other great world cities like New York or Paris, where the city remains its own public space. In London’s case, its great advantage over its metropolitan rivals – space – has proved to be its undoing as people shelter behind the perceived refuge of these private utopias and forget that what makes a city vibrant and fresh are its streets; as noisy, busy and chaotic as they are. And street life isn’t planned, it is grown (which is why a place like Canary Wharf will never compare to the City of London). A city that seeks refuge from its streets rather than seeking refuge in them will slowly lose its soul.
One day people will realize the madness of it all. Just as modernism blighted cities with their horrid tower blocks, so too will these new private utopias stand as this generation’s folly in the decades to come. Maybe less drab than the Trellick Towers or Heygate Estates before them, but no less destructive of what remnants of community are left in this new gilded age. And worse yet, not done for some higher egalitarian or social-democratic ideal; after all, the least bad thing one can say about modernism is that it failed for all the right reasons. Today, it’s all about the money, community be damned.
The author speaks from experience, having lived in some of London’s soulless new-build utopias including Surrey Quays and Island Gardens. He has also lived in New York City, which has an incomparably vibrant street life that hasn’t changed since the first time he set foot there in the late 1980s. The same can be said about Paris, which he has also visited extensively. Proof that the French know how to get it right is Bercy Village, a major redevelopment in the eastern fringes of the city that ticks all the boxes.