At some point there has been a break in the continuum. The early ages can be traced out in more linear fashion. The buildings of Fitzroy Square, designed by the architect Robert Adam in the 1790s are not that remote from the arts and crafts influenced buildings of Belmont House and Tower House in Candover Street which are built one hundred years later. But then glass-slab buildings appear, and then some of these are expressed in eccentric shapes. A tradition of building style which changes, but has continuity, over several centuries is lost.
The implications of this are unclear but something else was noticed too; not just about changes in building design and size and function, but also in people’s story telling. Perhaps it’s faux nostalgia but the earlier phases of development, while smaller and less full of capital, seem to contain richer stories. It’s not about being anti-the new. The Post Office tower fits the earlier Fitzrovia in a way which is difficult to understand or explain. It works. This is almost as much to do with design principles as it is to do with aesthetics. It is possible to move in architecture, style and design from the latter part of the 18th century to the early decades of the 21st century and there are good examples of how that has been successfully done. But there is a great deal which is not a success and represents little more than a monoculture of capital and its visible building facades. Rather than being an addition (as the Post Office tower is) it too often feels like an imposition. When and how did capital become even more oppressive?
There is a building which was part of the original Middlesex hospital. It was built by public subscription in 1935. There was no free public health system at the time. People would save in health schemes and all sorts of other ways to pay for health care. That system continues in the USA where people can find themselves selling their house and all their possessions should they become ill. That building which was built by public subscription was sold to the Candy Brothers. It has been redeveloped, but how and by who? Public subscription involves a lot of people, often contributing small amounts. But it has a certain democracy and equitably about it. The money would have been closely accounted for; after all, it’s the pennies, shillings and sixpences of local people. The Candy Brothers are immensely wealthy. That wealth buys power; but it is secretive and hidden, disguised, wrapped in layers of obfuscation. The development of capital is an erosion of democracy and the shrinking of genuine public space.
Capital not only centralises, but within that general centralisation there are many local centralisations. Capital becomes ever more intense, ever larger, ever stronger; but herein lies the beginnings of its own destruction. Capital needs to constantly flow, to expand, to increase it’s strange physical and abstract mass. But as soon as it is frozen into buildings, infrastructure and factories and land it becomes trapped. Now a new tension emerges; the need for the frozen mass to somehow continue to grow. Offices and large buildings freeze capital but now they must somehow strive to continue to ‘make money’, to deliver profit. An increase in land values is one way in which this can be done. Here capital is helped by the state (using tax payers money) which creates infrastructure – railways, roads, ‘facilities’ and so on. It is also helped by the arrival of more external capital in the form of investments. The Langham Estate has a portfolio of 13.8 acres, including shops, offices and flats. But Land Securities has a property portfolio of 2,200,000 sq metres. Each needs to make a profit but the opportunities may narrow rather than expand.
As soon as toil ended I dashed out of the office block development for the newly opened Crossrail. Or rather the partial opening. It’s not yet joined up properly. The train to Liverpool Street station is just the same as the previous overground railway. Once at Liverpool Street itself the passengers have long walks, in and out of the barriers, through a tunnel which stretches underneath some of the most valuable real estate in the world. It feels as if there is more walking than actual train travel. It is a fantastic construction project, a marvel of engineering. The escalators and spacious tunnels and the glitzy steel. It doesn’t feel to be underground but has created it’s own world within a world, not even a subterranean world but a world which exists in neither time nor space. This would be a perfect setting for Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The echos and acoustics would provide yet another dimension. The lights could be dimmed, the audience sat leaning on the curved walls of the tunnels as the cast strode here and there. Flaming torches adding smokey mystery and threat to the atmosphere. Perhaps I’ll write to the Mayor of London with the idea.
Street by street, square by square, alleyway by alleyway, patches of waste ground; London is succumbing to the monoculture of the glass slab. It creates a certain type, of archness and cynicism and apathy and demoralisation and a disdain for the undercurrents of fury, alienation, immiseration, oppression. There is a sneer and snarl at the theory and practice of Marxism and Engelism. The glass-slab architecture may be a factor in helping to create one-dimensional glass-slab thinking. But it is not just changes to property type and form which is the issue but the property relations. Catherine Bauer describes in her book Modern Housing how there was a brief attempt in Europe from around the mid 1920s to the early 1930s to build housing which was outside the existing capitalist property relations. It was a brave – and at times immensely successful – project. It could be argued that since the 1980s, particularly in Britain, the capitalists have been doing everything in their great power to roll back all those gains. This creates big questions not just about the provision of housing, but the ability of the reformists in the current time to deliver housing reforms, and more importantly, to defend them. Not only is capital becoming more intense (and therefore more oppressive) but capitalist property relations are wrapping themselves around more and more of daily life, in a knotweed like fashion.
It is all a lie, an illusion, a hypocrisy, a corruption. It creates swirling vortexes of resentment, inarticulate anger, frustration, despondency, despair. Look down and there are tears on the pavements.
Preparing for the Fitzrovia Radical Walk involved a lot of walking the streets. Different routes, this street, that’s a dead end, this street is too disconnected from everything else. This street is too long and lacks interest. There is a crowd of people outside a pub. I ask the doorman if the pub is open on a Sunday. ‘Oh’, he says, ‘you can ask the governor’. He indicates a dapper man with big glasses with thick frames. He sort of nods. I introduce myself.
‘Nice to meet you Danny’, he says. Proper London-Jewish-Cockney. It’s friendly enough but it’s non-committal. He moves his hand and opens an invisible door that hides a secret tunnel into the past. Suddenly we are in a noir London of the 1950s. Members of the 43 Group used to meet in the Lyons Tea House in Tottenham Court Road. He has that anti-fascist toughness which so many Jewish people acquired in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s. He might be a member of a Communist Party cell. A different London was conjured up; why did it feel so much more exciting and exhilarating? To what extent has capital dissolved this atmosphere?
That earlier phase didn’t mysteriously dissolve. It was broken up,brick by brick, stick by stick, by a purchase here, an investment there, the expanding use of new technologies, the development of each and every industrial process. The class struggle is not just about strikes and demonstrations and political meetings and leaflets and slogans painted on a wall. It is how the ruling class use their class power on a daily basis. Most of the time, as individuals, there is little we can do about it and we experience that immense power as if there is nothing at all we can do about it. The current shape of this time of capital is expressed in the glass-slabs and factories and container ships and machines that make machines and machines that make commodities. This is how capital is brought into physical being from the billions of 1s and 0s held in global cloud computing power. For after all what is money now?
The streets feel so alive in this Friday evening. There is always a tension between how miserable and alienating capitalism is and how we want to do the best to enjoy our own lives. It is often expressed as what we don’t want as much as what we might want. There is an article in the news about a woman who lives in Stoke-on-Trent. She is 57 years old but looks a hundred years older. She explains that she cannot remember when she last had a hot meal. ‘I have nothing in the fridge and nothing in my purse. I can’t even go out and have one drink. I have no treats’. As part of the research for Fitzrovia ‘luxury apartments’ have been discovered which cost 5 or 6 million pounds. There are virtual tours on the internet produced by estate agents and developers. The interiors are generally ghastly. But the whole set up is ghastly.
I ring the bell at what I think is the Meta offices. A voice asks me through an intercom what I want.
‘Is the headquarters of Meta?’
‘What do you want to know that for?’
Given the way that Meta – the owner of Facebook and WhatsApp – snoop and track and record what we do on the internet – often with little, if any, understanding by the public – this is funny in a funny peculiar sort of way. To be fair, when I do talk to someone he’s on the level. These street level conversations are interesting. I often sense an interest in the political aspects. Let’s not get carried away, but I never think there is a mass political party which is anywhere near representing, organising and articulating this. As I leave and walk through the strange green arch way I say aloud to myself, ‘it doesn’t even fit with the rest of the area’. A man walks past and shrugs. Not everyone thinks the same.
And then I’m in the whirling movement of people, groups outside the pubs with loud chatter, two women taking photographs by doorways and shop windows, waiters standing outside restaurants, security guards, fast cycle past couriers, busy post office workers moving all the mail, electricians and maintenance workers loading up their vans with specialist tools and equipment, finishing work for the day. A woman standing outside a house with a glass of white wine shows me the bull’s head graphic in the tiles of her neighbour. ‘Both these shops used to be butchers’, she tells me. A few metres down the street a woman is leaning out of a second floor window smoking a cigarette. She looks at me and smiles so I explain I’m doing a survey.
‘I’m interested in who used to live in this housing’,
‘I don’t know’, she tells me. Everything she says is accompanied by smiles and laughter. I think she might be Italian. I invite her to the walk on Sunday and we wave goodbye.
I stop and talk to the landlord of The Fitzroy Tavern. He has black hair cut into a rockabilly style, black shirt and black trousers, silver rings on each of his fingers. We exchange notes on Augustus John and Nina Hamnett and Dylan Thomas and many more.
‘They sat in here and declared this the headquarters of Bohemia in 1922’, I say.
‘That’s right!’, he agrees, full of animated conversation. He sweeps his arm in almost a full circle.
‘This was all Bohemia, this was the centre of the world’.
And in some ways it was. A centre of the fine arts and furniture production and tailors and tailoresses, of Louise Michel and refugees from the Paris Commune. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels walked these streets to visit the Communist Club in Charlotte Street. On the first anniversary of the death of Marx, that was the meeting point for those who marched to Highgate. May day marches sometimes started there. Marxists, socialists, communists. There were followers of Kropotkin in the area and a large group of anarchists. Earlier, the Owenites had a base in the area; believers in Utopia, and some undoubtedly followers of Charles Fourier. And why not? A utopian dream is much more extraordinary than the dream of a new car.
We need these centres more than ever. Of Bohemia, communism, socialism, anarchism, utopianism. Capitalism is getting into our very bones, into the spaces where we live, into our very psyche. It will eliminate self-expression, self-identity, collective power, creativity, our very creatureliness.
People have been sending me stories about Fitzrovia and I realised how interesting they all are. And wonder whether the weird opaque power of capital might fight to take our very stories from us. To eat them up and repackage them and make us pay to be the subject of our own life. What is the corrosive impact of capital on story telling?
But perhaps therein lies an answer. That story telling too might be a power in our hands.