Broadgate; or how I learned to love (some) postmodern architecture

The train fares have gone up again. These increases are accompanied by marketing campaigns with inane grins which smirk about cheap tickets. Capitalism in the twenty first century is all about facades. The Spectacle has a new coat of paint but the rot beneath produces a greater stink.

The speed of this Spectacle is not constant over time. There is an acceleration. Some stand in a hall of mirrors, their own image reflected back in distorted ways. Nothing will come properly into focus.

I’m reading The Communist Manifesto on the train to London and feeling a disconnection between the enthusiasm and potential of nineteenth century revolution and the social construction of the so-called reality in this carriage. But contradictions, tensions, the movements of capital are generally hidden. The image is never what it seems.

It’s raining in London and I’m not in the mood for rain. The streets around Kings Cross are crowded with people pulling suitcases on wheels. Some are sitting in corner pubs watching the rain, the amount of beer in the glass and the time. I’m just watching the rain. It seems to be making instant puddles. A street which a minute or two ago was just a few York stone slabs is now covered with big sheets of water. It’s grey rain and it’s making grey puddles. Oil and petrol make sickly coloured patterns on top of the water in the gutters.

Out into the rain and towards Coal Drops Yard. I quite like parts of this development. I say parts because I like the old industrial buildings and the fact that Central Saint Martins is located here. The students always look new and at least are trying to be a moment or two ahead of the times. And what’s more they at least appear to be full of ideas. They bring a rebellious and anarchic attitude to the place and the faint burning smoke of something anti-corporate.

But there is no time to linger here. I catch the train southwards, through the tunnels and cut and cover and out again into the brick and concrete fields and hills of the jumbled topography of London.

City Thameslink is a strange enigma which has somehow broken through the time-space continuum. On stepping from the station another London is discovered, vaguely familiar but unknown, the landscape of a recurring dream.

A group of followers of Saint-Simon have left the train. They wear bright red sashes, white blouses, black belts, boots with silver buckles. They shout revolution in the streets and declare Utopia. A van of unshaven, unwashed police arrive. They have sour breath and despotic minds, sharing death images on secret apps, arrogant and aggressive. The Saint-Simonians advance and draw their swords.

The rain is more determined as I walk up to St Bride’s Church. I like these narrow streets and the red brick of the St Bride Institute and the Bridewell Theatre. The pub on the corner has the words ‘Ale and Gin’ etched into the glass window. The inside is both dark and bright. The bottles behind the bar sparkle and silently purse their lips in temptation and seduction.

The visit to the May Day Rooms is a speculative one to deliver more leaflets. The visit goes well and there’s a long conversation about offices and the character of office work, the characteristics of office workers, the immense investment into offices, offices as units of capital, offices as units of production, office as giant magnets which pull labour from all over the world into their sky touching spaces.

I stand in Fleet Street waiting for a bus and then realise I could catch the bus stuck in the traffic queue. The driver kindly lets me on. I sit upstairs and experiment with taking film. It works better than expected. There is also that interesting experience of looking at the world through a camera. The camera is put down and the streets look a certain way. The eye rests on view finder and the streets look different.

The plan is to trace out the route for the forthcoming Radical Liverpool Street Walk. It will start at the Bishopsgate Institute, across to the Broadgate Centre, Exchange Square, Liverpool Street Station, Old Broad Street, St Botolph’s Church, towards 22 Bishopsgate, St Mary Axe, 30 St Mary Axe, Devonshire Square and Liverpool Street. Where the Communist Manifesto was first published in February 1848.

I take some photographs of the Bishopsgate Institute and it’s curious arts and craft influenced design. It has a twin nearby, the Whitechapel gallery, and a relative in South London, the Horniman Museum. All three were designed by Charles Harrison Townsend.

All three have played an important role in holding a position in relation to an alternative history, the intervention of art in an area, places of enchantment and character, to be discovered. Such places are increasingly rare. Enchantment and magic aren’t part of the toolkit of the modern retail – office – luxury apartment – leisure complex.

And this was deliberate. The Bishopsgate Institute was made possible by the work of Rev. William Rogers of the nearby St Botolph’s Church. He amalgamated 500 years of donations and endownments and used the money to fund the Bishopsgate Institute. There was a deliberate intention to provide a space and book and lecture room resources that would help working class people with their self-education ambitions.

The start of construction of the Broadgate centre in 1985 was marked by a visit of Margaret Thatcher. Less than thirty years later the whole complex was threatened with demolition. Now it looks rather neglected and is undergoing a major refurbishment.

I can remember it being built. It seemed remote, outside the sphere of interests of the left in London. Something to be dismissed with a one-off sentence about ‘finance’ and ‘bankers’ without much consideration as to what either of these things might mean. That world of the left was dominated by ‘millions hate the Tories’, ‘the crisis’ and ‘the downturn’ and it all seemed grey and miserable and grim.

And yet there in front of us and yet seemingly impossible to see, a new re-configuration of capital in concrete, glass and steel (with increasing amounts of computing hardware and software) began to emerge.

Broadgate was part of a wider development which included Tower 42 (1980) and Canary Wharf (1990). These were visible representations of an ongoing expansion of capital and an intensification of the internationalisation of capital accumulation. My memory might be playing tricks but I remember the left at that time concentrating on factory production socialism. The idea that much of what Marx wrote about in Capital might be on our doorstep somehow never formed.

Office blocks before the Second World tended to be financed by the companies that would use them as their headquarters. If an insurance company or bank or industrial company needed headquarters then they built them themselves and owned the lease or freehold.

In the post-war period property development companies were formed and banks, insurance companies and pension funds became increasingly involved. More capital was needed as buildings increased in size and land values rose.

Post war developers made a lot of money and profit margins were high. Property development began to take place on an industrial scale. Buildings were not just commissioned by individual clients; they were speculatively built. Imagine that; building something 600 feet tall, weighing 200,000 tonnes on the basis that someone might lease some floor space.

Offices increasingly became centres of technical development and innovation; server rooms and desk top computing, wide area networks and then the internet. This representsed a qualitative change from the ink wells, blotting paper, occasional telephone and specialised mechanical equipment of the 1930s.

This technical development was also an expansion of capital with all that involves. The pressure for profits and returns increased. Ink and paper are low cost inputs. Computers, networks and serves are high cost inputs. And someone somewhere is expecting to make profits on these inputs.

I watched the construction of Broadgate from the top of the number 6 bus on it’s way to and from Hackney. It seemed at variance with all the talk of crisis and it was difficult to understand through a thick fog of mechanical Marxist dogma. There was dogma too in criticisms of its design and style. After all, wasn’t this post-modernism? One big dragon started to mature; crisis, millions hate the Tories, downturn and post-modernism.

Post-modernism in social theory is indeed turgid. It is the puke that never comes, always lying in the belly causing never ending nauseau. But post-modernism in architecture is something else again. I’m not fond of these transmissions of architectural styles into political ideas. It’s bad enough with something called Gothic Marxism where no one seems to be able to define what the Gothic actually is.

And when it was finished I remember the guilty feeling that I rather liked it. Was this some sort of heresy?

Such were the times that the answers to many questions were sought in the conditions of Russia in the early twentieth century rather than in the conditions of London in the latter part of the 1980s.

What would the Bolsheviks have done and would Lenin approve? The Russian Revolution was relatively clearly mapped out, but who the Bolsheviks actually were was less clear. Or perhaps I missed those meetings. There was little sense that the Bolsheviks included a fair few odd balls and maverick intellectuals with Bohemia styles and tastes.

Many lived in poverty and exile but they dined on a rich goulash of Marxism followed by puddings topped with large dollops of Hegelian cream. Industrial workers joined, but the Bolshevik party up until and beyond 1917 was never a party of industrial workers. The noise and colours it produced were different from simply picket line obsessions. And more to the point, there was not a landscape of speculative office building in Russia at the time of the Revolution so there wasn’t much to be learned from that direct experience.

Capitalism has marched on since the 1980s. A immense industrial development in China, India and many other places. Office blocks are bigger, brighter, bolder. They have left their fortresses in New York and London and have conquered cities around the globe.

They boast of roof terraces, canteens with plant based foods, whole rain forests occupy the sustainable reception areas. But the toilet cubicles are sound proof now and no one can hear the screams.

These buildings now require even greater volumes of capital. It’s been some time since regional building societies or insurance companies had that sort of cash.

Now the foundations of these buildings go deeper into the clay and sand of London and are financed by the soveriegn wealth funds of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qater. Capital surpluses from China, the money looted by oligarchs in Eastern Europe and Russia, money held in offshore trusts and funds. That’s the stuff that’s now crystallising into ever bigger towers in more and more places.

The City is finally usurped. Its medieval power broken.

But what of the left? Why didn’t we see this triumph of capitalism coming when it was swaggering and raising champagne glasses in those far off days of forty years ago?

I wonder what we’ve learned and what we might need to un-learn. Perhaps instead of meetings on ‘millions hate the Tories’ we might have tried, ‘where is all this money coming from?’

Ways of Seeing are important in art. But also in learning to see organisations, and their culture, and the multiple dimensions of theories and ideas.

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