Emerging from Vauxhall station is to be switched rather rapidly from the modernism of electrical underground travel to…..what exactly? Wide six lane roads with cars moving in all directions. It is a giant conveyor belt of motorism and stretches all around the world. From the edge of the road it appears to be a swirling chaos with no direction or plan. But there is a vast plan and there is powerful control. All these metal vehicles and towers of steel, glass and concrete didn’t just appear spontaneously without warning or forethought. There is a plan which makes the whole landscape even more absurd. St George’s Wharf already has a shabby stained facade. From the edge the whole development around Nine Elms appears to lack ideas, principles, character and soul, a car-topia with one giant steel carcass nothing-ness after another.
There are a surprising number of people who casually say they don’t like tall buildings. Is there any academic research? They are always an imposition, looming over the sky line and impacting on sight lines and visual horizon aesthetics miles away from where they are. Sometimes big groups of high rise can work; consider Manhattan. And curiously, even the worst designs and most random clusters can look surprisingly good at night when they are all lit up.
But is this what’s really going on? Or are these just safe-deposit boxes masquerading as apartments for the oligarchs, oil despots, anti-democracy tax evaders and the supra-rich? There is mention here of eco-gardens and I’m sure of sustainability and community. But the monarch-developers responsible for this have no clothes. The only eco-garden that would have made sense here would be an eco-garden. A space without millions of tons of concrete. I check the portable bullshit detector but all the marketing brochures have broken its dial. The new inequalities same as the old inequalities but now with added contradictions and greater visibility.
Three men are walking along the pavement all wearing t-shirts with Pride logos and colours. I ask them what they think of it. One is sure, one is not sure, one doesn’t speak.
‘It’s great, compared to what was here before’.
With some hesitation, ‘well it’s modern’. But then struggles to say anything else. It can be difficult to describe the topography of anywhere. People say whether they like or not but are not clear why. It’s worth noting that many of the replies are emotional and about feelings. Rather than using the languages of architecture or planning. But then most of us are not taught those languages and they are not used much in the general vernacular of conversation or by the major producers of news.
I ask them if they are going to Pride, ‘yeah’, they all say, ‘hope you enjoy it’. We part.
There are different parts of all this development and there is a lot of construction work going on. Two cops carrying machine guns swagger past. I stop and ask a woman in matching beige top and trousers and 1960s Carnaby Street sunglasses what she thinks of it all.
‘I love it’, she says. ‘Best thing I ever did moving here. It’s friendly and there’s a real community’.
I am slightly taken aback by this but in a useful way because it makes me think.
The next person I ask parks their bicycle – or is it a scooter – see how ephemeral observation can trick us later on. She’s a young woman with long black hair and braces over her front teeth. I remember her, perhaps because I speak to her. The inanimate object leaves no impression.
‘What do you think of all of this?’
‘Well its for the rich isn’t it’. And then she adds, ‘one of these blocks has a special entrance for the social housing tenants’.
I ask a random collection of people what they think of it. But I have no idea which blocks they actually live in or what their status is. Out of the twenty or so the majority say they love it.
‘Friendly, community, all the facilities’.
‘Every time I go out I meet someone new’.
‘It’s really close to central London’
‘It’s quiet and tranquil in this part’.
‘Like the garden bit here’.
Two men stop and one explains they are from China.
‘Where about’s in China?’ I ask, ‘from the east of the country’. I don’t press questions, the government is despotic.
‘What do you think of this?’
They like it too. Same response; the gym, the facilities, the Waitrose.
‘I feel safe here’, the man who speaks English says.
‘Why’s that?’ I ask
‘Because the American embassy is just there’. He gestures with his head.
‘And they have a lot of security’.
‘And police with machine guns’, I add
‘But don’t you think it’s a enormous magnet for terrorist attacks?’
He looks at me blankly. He might be from the Chinese government or a representative of Chinese capital which is looking for global investment opportunities.
The two cops with machine guns don’t make me feel safe. Anything but. They had an air of arrogance about them that is all too familiar a trait in police forces.
I am standing next to the blocks with the sky pool but I don’t know if the people I talk to live here or in different blocks. The sky pool has generated a lot of publicity – something the marketing department must be immensely satisfied with. Setting aside the social inequalities of all this (just momentarily you understand) I look it all afresh. There has been so many positive comments that I start to see it differently. The quality of these particular blocks is good. I like the green tiles. The garden with water, and the stepping stones across the water, that’s lovely. I had earlier walked across the stepping stones and it’s a nice little fun thing to do on a Saturday morning. There are plenty of kids playing in the play park and making a lot of joyful noise.
I begin to realise that this isn’t a homogenous area at all. There are differences between the blocks and there are the emergence of distinct neighbourhoods. But it feels as if there are at least some blocks which work in terms of community. I don’t know the incomes of these people. All the people I spoke to where friendly and I didn’t get the impression they were all loaded. Is there a further class division as we ascend the hierarchies of class? That once the higher towers are finished they will be filled up (well at least the apartments which are lived in rather than buy to leave) with a different class of rich? Do the even richer look down on those who just qualify to be rich and are there even richer people who look down from even higher up? The hierarchy of class is definitely expressed in buildings but I don’t think I had appreciated just by how much.
I spend quite some time talking to a couple who live here. They really like it. I explain that I had come with quite a lot of pre-conceptions which had changed by talking to people; including talking to them.
‘I’m a socialist and want this sort of quality everywhere’, I explain, setting out my case (with some references to Christopher Alexander and the ‘quality without a name’). And then the thought struck me. This could be global standard. Well designed, good quality build, lovely gardens, and lots of sky pools. Why not? The principle isn’t bad. The problem is that so few people have this and so many live in terrible slums without even clean running water.
The woman tells me that her dad is a socialist. And she felt he turned up with a lot of negative things to say about it but he liked quite a lot of it too.
I enjoyed all these conversations a great deal and also manage to resolve the contradiction of socialism and good quality housing. They are not incompatible; but we won’t get general good quality housing without socialism. And while we defend the good working class housing of the past (and there is a considerable amount of it) we should realise that it is square one on the board game of improving social conditions. And that good quality housing that some of the rich have is about square 49 on the same board game. But that the board game has a hundred squares. And we won’t get to the 100th square for everyone without tearing up capitalism and all its relations of private property and throwing them into the solar winds, frozen in the cold of deep space and then burned for ever in the immense heat of the sun.
I ask a man who is pushing a trolley what he thinks of it. He tells me in a Jamaican accent that he thinks it’s great.
‘Could you afford to live here?’ I ask
‘No’, he laughs, ‘I couldn’t even afford to use the swimming pool’. He goes on his way, pushing the trolley, his back bent, his arms stretched.
Outside another block further along I ask a woman coming out of a building what she thinks of it.
‘I don’t know’, she says, ‘I’m just the cleaner’. She is wearing a most wonderful avant-garde trouser suit. She stands close to me and looks at me intently. We talk about taking photographs and and this and that and then, one of those sentences appears without any seeming thought or conscious effort. It is slipped casually into the conversation.
‘And do you get paid enough?’. It’s asked in a sympathetic and fraternal way. Perhaps everyone should be stopped in the street and asked that question. The answers might not surprise the corruption of the Tory Party but I wonder if the answers would shake up the ha’penny worth of ideas of the leader of the Labour Party?
Her whole face changes. The light that was sparkling in her eyes just a moment ago fades and her whole countenance changes. What is this expression? I can’t read it properly but I’ve not seen it on the faces of those who are enjoying luxury living.
‘No’, her eyes shift to look away. What can be read here? Anger, frustration, discontent, defiance? She looks at me closely again. It feels as if this conversation could go a long way and would reveal a great deal about Capital and Labour that might not be getting picked up in the videos on Youtube extolling the virtues of Lexington Gardens and its surrounds. We slowly both come back into the environment of glass, concrete and steel and she tells me about her daughter and her husband who is a professional photographer. She explains that she’s from Bulgaria. She smiles and lifts her hand to wave farewell and off she goes with her bag and dreams and hopes.
The development as a whole has yet to be finished so it’s difficult to develop a well-formed opinion. It will look different when the pile-drivers have been moved to another site and the hoardings taken down and the banksman will be redeployed to another fantastic development opportunity. There he will stop the lorries full of cement and the lorries carrying steel beams and glass panels and glue and wires and cables and office furniture and kitchen units and steel pipes and component parts for lifts and underground gyms and up-in-the-sky swimming pools.
What about the half-formed views? There are some parts which obviously work well. The residents are pleased with them and some of the architecture and design might not be inspiring but it’s not that bad either. A great deal of it however feels muddled and confused. There are no underlying social principles or morals or ethical values to bind it together. The buildings only share two common attributes.
The first of these is that they have been built speculatively for the primary purpose of making money-profits for the likes of Bellway and hedge funds, despots, oligarchs, multi-millionaires and billionaires. There is a shared attribute of money-greed.
The second shared attribute is that they are all the product of human labour. Without human labour none of this – not so much as a stone being moved across a foot or two of the land – would be possible. Every single component, every single tap, door handle, steel girder, ethernet cable, water pipe – all the product of human labour. The assembly into these tall towers; all the product of human labour. The pile drivers, the tower cranes, the specialist machines, the welding equipment. All the product of human labour. The extraction of the raw materials in the first place; the sand, iron ore, magnesium, cobalt, nickel, copper; it’s all human labour that make it possible.
But this labour isn’t free. Yes its free to get drunk and sleep under bridges but it’s not free in any meaningful sense. The vast majority of the labour here has no say in the design, the construction techniques, whether tall buildings are built here or a new hospital. The labour of the worker is sold to another and they are instructed on a daily basis how to expend their labour. This labour is super-exploited because the gap between the lowest wages and the highest profits is immense, much greater than it was 100 years ago. The extraction of the worker’s labour power is an extraction of the worker’s life essence. The entire edifice that confronts the worker is an expression of the alienation of Capital.
The buildings are impressive as artefacts and products of civil engineering. There is a huge complexity in building so high and so strong. Building Information Modelling software is used, mathematical equations, Computer Aided Design. In the the current most advanced building sites drones and robots are used. When construction finishes for the day, the drones and robots are switched on and they spend the night hours moving around the site looking for snags and defects. This is clever stuff. Building and construction are heavy, dirty, dangerous and difficult types of work. Automation can lighten the physical labour and improve the safety; automation of the building process can liberate the workers involved. They could turn their life essence to craft. Let the machines build so high and tall, they don’t mind early mornings and freezing cold wet afternoons. Let the human living workers be freed from toil and be liberated to work upon their own designs, their own craft and their own minds and bodies.
Machines could genuinely liberate instead of enslave. The marshalling and organising of the productive forces and the application of the most advance technical processes could rebuild the world in all those places where the world needs to be rebuilt. The slums could be razed to the ground and in their place buildings and spaces of great luxury, of communal luxury. Where everything is of high quality, with all the necessary provision of hospitals and clinics, schools and nurseries and kindergartens, social places, facilities, but for all.
In the most dialectical way, the morning exploring the luxury of capital had created a stream of thoughts about the socialist antithesis. And from this a new existence and presence; that of a shared communal luxury. The left really ought to study all this stuff a lot more; not just the buildings but the people and the social relations from the perspective of the rich. There is a great deal to learn.
I walked around some more and then something quite peculiar happened. I felt as if I was inside a pixelated brochure, that the image and the reality had merged, that everything was just the replication of endless images and the atmosphere developed a hallucinatory quality. What is this stuff doing to our minds? The buildings have a strange sense of being in the distance but at the same time they are too close together. They feel overpowering. There isn’t enough space between them. There is something odd about this aesthetic in that it is neither a collection of individual things, nor a harmonious whole. The one expression it constantly has is of being disjointed. My movement throught this landscape was as if a hallucination, out-of-body, disembodiedment, that one’s own ego ceases to exist. That the alienation was a separate force that sucked the life-essence from all sentient beings.
There is a background noise of construction machinery and an endless beep-beep-beep of machines. A garage door opens automatically and a car slips inside the space and disappears. While I’m taking a photograph of this process and voice speaks from behind.
‘Sorry to make you jump’, he says, a man wearing a black suit and white shirt and red tie.
‘But you can’t take photographs here’.
The trick on these occasions is to never be high and mighty. Some basic friendliness can reveal a great deal which would otherwise be hard to discover. Here’s someone who works in this place. They will have a lot of local knowledge, about the place, the people, how it’s managed and much else beside.
‘Oh, where does it say that?’
‘Come with me and I’ll show you’. I’m intrigued by this and we chat away as we walk around the back of the buildings.
‘But why can’t I take photographs, surely people take photographs here all the time?’
‘It’s private land’.
‘Yes but what difference does that make?’
‘It’s the management’, he explains, ‘they don’t want people taking photographs of the buildings’.
They must be paranoid people. But what are they paranoid about? Strange how all this wealth makes some people so suspicious.
We stop outside a sign on a lamp post that clearly says: ‘Private Land’ and some details of the management company.
‘But it doesn’t say I can’t take photographs’. I may be wrong but I thought he was trying not to laugh. ‘It’s the management’ he said solemnly. And then that question slipped out again.
‘Do you think you get paid enough’.
He looked at me and leaned back.
‘No way’, he said with a force that could stop a large boulder rolling down a mountain side.
‘Could you afford to live here my friend?’
‘No’, he said again, ‘not even in my dreams, not even in my dreams could I afford to live here.
We talked about the cost of living crisis. He told me he was originally from Turkey.
‘Have a good weekend’, I said as we parted, ‘you too’, he replied.
I left Nine Elms and its development. The next chapter of this story is Battersea Power Station and a walk across Battersea Park to trace the remains of the Festival of Britain. That chapter is still being written but there is an interesting link between Nine Elms and Battersea. Before I got to the power station itself I noticed a Rastafarian guy with orange high viz trousers and jacket and big boots and a rucksack. I asked him if this site was part of the new developments.
‘No mate’, he explained, ‘we’re building the super-sewer here. Eighty feet under the ground’. He pointed to the tarmac at our feet.
‘What do you think of that?’ I said pointing to Battersea Power Station.
‘Well they kept some of the features’, he said looking at it. We stood side by side.
‘And then they added £10 million apartments’, he explained pointing to the glass boxes which sit on top of the high red brick walls.
‘It will be a long time before I live in one of them’, I said.
‘We just build ’em mate’, he replied looking at me. ‘We don’t live in ’em’.
He said all this with a laughing smile and gave a thumbs up and wished that I would ‘ave a good ‘un’, all at the same time.
And the same to you. And all the other people I talked to and gave me a little of their time and thoughts and ideas and humour and insights and their light words and their heavy words.
For what is any place but the people?