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12 July 2014

A delicate Sense of Terror

Balfron Tower, Poplar

Roughly speaking, my time in Britain was bookended by two particularly virulent spates of Tory viciousness: the first one just before my arrival as I saw the tail end of the great Thatcherite saga in the sheer devastation wreaked on Trafalgar Square during the Poll Tax riots (which a one-night stand of mine had witnessed from his window and found 'fucking hot'); the second bout of severe collective masochism occurred a few years after my self-exfiltration to Germany as the old Eton boys raided the Cabinet in one fell swoop and guided by their new social conscience proceeded to finish off what 'New Labour' had wilfully pursued: the methodical dismantling of whatever was left of the post-war settlement. So, after the humdrum years of Major's premiership (save for the many sex scandals), I collided head-on with the impending Blairite revolution, a world as classless as it would be aspirational, as Islington was propelled centre of the universe, dictating what was right and desirable in matters of taste and lifestyle. After all, had the victory knees-up not been organised at the Royal Festival Hall, with Tony's creatures sashaying around that 'icon' of British modernism, something absolutely unthinkable in the stuffiness of the old regime [1]? But if we were all initially (at least my friends and I) enthralled by Cool Britannia and readily bought into the fiction, not everyone was invited to the party. Under its cuddly pretences, the new Labour government was every bit as obsessed with the 'feral underclass', as it was later to be labelled, inhabiting the inner-cities as its predecessors had been - the actual problem here being located in 'inner' and 'city'. For how could those people, who in the process got vilified as 'Chavs' [2], afflicted with deplorable social habits, appalling diets and the wrong sorts of bodies, enjoy so much space, good design (sometimes) and the convenience of central urban life? I remember the hysteria surrounding the rising danger of the single mum (in other words, the sexually rampant, council housed and benefit sponging working class slag) who became overnight a national hate-figure and the media's favourite punchbag. More crucially for me, it was also a time of good old neo-liberal laissez-faire with a overheated housing market gone bonkers, as ever larger swathes of London became ripe for extensive gentrification - between squalid, substandard accommodation, failed houseshares with arty lesbians, illegally sublet flats on sink estates and sleazy landlords, I can't remember a time when finding a proper home wasn't an all-consuming, anxiety-ridden affair. Finally, it was at Labour's initiative that entire communities in northern England were decimated in a failed bid to regenerate the housing sector, a scheme with a name - 'Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder' - reeking of obfuscation and which might well have been the final rehearsal of what was to come: the all-out attack on the urban poor [3].

I recently came across an article encapsulating the peculiarities of this latest onslaught: the Balfron Tower, Ernő Goldfinger's soaring, rough-cast behemoth in Poplar, a visually arresting Brutalist [4] highrise emblematic of the long gone heydays of municipal pride, is due to be sold off to a private luxury developer after extensive refurbishment. Like most of the housing stock formerly owned by local councils, the block had been handed over to a housing association - Poplar HARCA - which had pledged to carry out essential repairs and upgrading. But I suppose they got a bit overexcited along the way when they realised what kind of asset they were sitting on: the Balfron is indeed a Grade II-listed building within a stone's throw of Canary Wharf, a yuppie's wet dream come true. The writing was clearly on the wall for tenants who started receiving their 'decanting' orders - to use the sinister bureaucratic term currently in vogue - to alternative locations with next to no chance of ever returning. Decanting is a funny thing since people can get carted off to totally unknown places where they have no family ties whatsoever - preferably as far north as possible. This has been standard procedure for quite some time now, from Woodberry Down in Hackney, transformed beyond recognition, to Stratford's Carpenters Estate, a 1960s confection sticking out like a sore thumb in the rash of new condos and upmarket shopping centres acting as gateways to the Olympics sites, and evacuated once opportunistically declared unsalubrious and unsound by the council. Likewise, its inhabitants were offered housing 'choices' all over the country [5] while TV networks managed to snap up the best top floor flats for their live broadcasts - a deal made in heaven for both parties - and missile launchers were being installed atop blocks of flats across East London as pre-emptive defense measures. This can't have lessened the climate of fear and marginalisation deliberately maintained on those 'territories of exception' [6] with both intensive policing and administrative bludgeoning interlocked in the same mechanics of oppression - the loathed 'bedroom tax' and benefit caps, the ever-expanding range of precarious types of tenure which forever removes any chance of a stable life, and the worst violent outcome of all: decanting. The incapacitating effects of material insecurity and the relentless humiliation meted out by the authorities are calculated ploys to annihilate any form of agency, local councils (and in that respect Tower Hamlets seems to have plumbed new depths of inaptitude and cynicism) turning against the very people they are duty-bound to serve. But 'civic' and 'social' having been slurs for nearly two generations now, it is in the power's interest to stifle any form of collective resistance seeing that no community could ever take root on estates with such a high turnover, the buildings being reduced to mere containers sheltering transient, often very vulnerable populations. As always, pitting deprived groups against one another in a context of acute housing shortage works wonders as renewed racial tensions in East London testify. The all-time classic 'Divide to Rule' has never been wielded to such disastrous effects in the social fabric, a 'dog eat dog' worldview that the Tories loftily essentialize as natural order.

 

  Peregrine House, Finsbury

And instrumental in this massive enterprise of unabashed social cleansing, entangled in intricate networks of power as in a spider's web, those without whom this cosy scenario could never have happened: the artists. As the Balfron got emptied for renovation (which, as Poplar HARCA boasted, would be to the highest specifications to attract the most discerning buyers and remain true to Goldfinger's original design), it seemed like a good idea to create a community of sorts to keep the building alive, a temporary motley crew made up of the usual homeless wretches shunted between B&Bs and estates awaiting demolition, the thoroughly exploited legions of 'guardians' employed to ward off undesirables and, at the top of the pecking order, the pioneers who turned this dishevelled part of the East End into London's latest Artist Quarter. It was certainly a win-win deal for everyone: the new owner could rest assured that his property was kept free of squatters (while gaining substantial cultural added value in the process), the council could bask in the glory of nurturing vibrant, diverse communities and a few lucky artists would be granted unhoped for live/work units in a city where it's nigh on impossible to find affordable studio space - their excitement at colonising a 'Brutalist monument to social idealism' with a bit of a rough edge undampened by the prospect of their eventual eviction. Indeed, it would be hard not to gasp at the commanding views, the generous spaces awash with daylight - nothing to do with the pokey meanness of newly-builts - and enough formica and fab wallpaper to give it that vintage authenticity that they crave [7]. Bow Arts, the community art organisation responsible for allocating workspaces, enthuses about this unholy new alliance between the creative classes and the barons of high-end real estate, harping on about the prime role of artists as harbingers of social regeneration. It actually comes as no surprise that such an 'iconic' creation as Balfron Tower should become the hottest address for sophisticated urbanites who after years of willful neglect now regard it as a modern classic and Goldfinger as a semi-god. After all, they'd already been falling all over each other to secure a pad in the Trellick, its architecturally more accomplished, infamous sibling in North Kensington (and dubbed well into the 1980s the 'Tower of Terror'), while the Elephant & Castle's Alexander Fleming House (another Goldfinger commission from a Welfare State at its peak) was being reinvented as 'Metro Central Heights' - best known these days as 'Metrosexual Heights' due to its alluring new classes of residents -, one of the first major conversions of official buildings for luxury puposes with a ludicrous name attached [8]. But, as the lovelies breezily glide along the access decks from art gallery to 'heritage flat', they might pause to muse over the fate of the neighbouring Robin Hood Gardens, a raw concrete, bunker-like double slab by the Smithsons - Swinging London's other glam couple along with Marianne and Mick -, due to be wiped out and replaced with a bog-standard high-rise development which will certainly optimise this piece of prime land in a much more profitable manner. Literally dangling under the nose of Tower Hamlets Town Hall, the irritant might just have been too great.

The artistic recycling of defunct public housing (either earmarked for demolition or decanted to be privately redeveloped) is nothing new. Back in the late nineties I remember seeing art installations on Deptford's Pepys Estate (whose converted Aragon Tower would later be featured in a BBC documentary dramatising clashes between local communities and newcomers in a lavishly produced piece of social porn) and an activist play on one of the blocks at the Stifford Estate in Stepney, the site of a protracted legal battle between Tower Hamlets and tenants, in a last-ditch attempt at averting eviction [9]. But I was young, thought that bringing art to the people was the noblest mission of all and even momentarily dabbled in community-impulsed projects. I would have applauded an initiative such as Bow Arts, convinced of that kind of artistic practices' sheer emancipatory power. Nor do I doubt some of the Balfron artists' genuine engagement with the social upheavals entailed by the mercenary displacement operation which they are, whether they want it or not, the vectors of - as in photographer Simon Terrill's Balfron Project, interacting in a profoundly poetic way with the concept of community and self-representation. But it's hard not to see in this ephemeral colony a helpless pawn being toyed with by hegemonic power/market forces, or worse still, willing executioners of discriminatory policies that they very consciously intend to benefit from. At the Balfron, the whole logic of betrayal, greed and class hatred coudn't be more blatant and barefaced - an in vitro recreation, as it were, of exclusionary processes that had been unfolding 'in real space' over several decades. One needs only remember the meteoric rise of the YBA scene in Shoreditch in the mid-1990s, storming a decaying working class backwater on the edge of the City and engulfing all previous forms of social life - and with it the most notorious gay sex club in the East End, The London Apprentice, a dispossession I would most intensely resent [10]. The fun was short-lived though, as most artists were within a couple of years squeezed further east by rocketing rents with property sharks moving in for the killing, leaving behind those shrewd (and sometimes good) enough to make it onto the international circuit. The same depressing story seems to have ricocheted all the way to Bow via Bethnal Green - too expensive now as even local galleries get priced out. All this brings to mind the prophecy made by Stuart Home in his novel Slow Death nearly twenty years ago [11]. An expert in art terrorist pranks and occult psychogeography, Home tears into the art microcosm, exposing the vanity of a self-serving, up-its-own-arse little clique of dealers and critics. Johnny Aggro, a proud skinhead living in Balfron's immediate neighbour, Fitzgerald House, gets embroiled through one of his posh shags - the multi-purpose Karen Eliot - in a massive operation of manipulation at the expense of a group of art school wankers, including the would-be art world power couple slumming it next door, hellbent on being signed by a major gallery by any means possible. The bozos are even prepared to endure all sorts of humiliations - including a gangbang - to be part of the latest artificially fabricated art movement, the one to end all avant-gardes: New Neoism. Slyly turning power ambitions and intrigues to his advantage, Johnny exacts his own brand of justice, reasserting the continuity and dignity of working class history on his own patch. When the pseuds get gunned down by the police after a failed desecration of William Blake's grave, the skinhead can settle down, safe in a timeless world where people know where they are coming from and stick to their role. The natural order of things, the old East End turned into fetishised fantasy.

 

fast forwardUPDATEfast forward 10.07.14. It's just been reported that a project of performance at Balfron Tower has been thwarted by local residents. The lovelies, emboldened by their sheer presence in the block and mad with excitement, couldn't believe their luck as their High Priestess, Turner Prize star Catherine Yass, announced she would drop a piano off the roof as a sonic experiment ("to look at how sound travels"). In a way I don't blame them: they're still wetting themselves at the thought of moving into a Brutalist icon without having the shit beaten out of them and treat it accordingly as their giant plaything. Sending large objects crashing down from buildings is after all not uncommon in a place like Poplar (it's just not the same crowd, who would certainly end up in deep shit for it) and some good sub-Fluxus subversion is what the locals, a depressing bunch knocking about in cheap, dowdy clothes, absolutely need to join in the fun. This weird fetish for doomed local authority housing and the irrepressible urge to do funny things with it seems pretty widespread as testified by Artangel's recent plan to turn a block on the Heygate Estate into a pyramid prior to its demolition (an installation by Mike Nelson, another former Turner Prize nominee), which has proved similarly controversial amongst former tenants. I'm loath to say this as I consider myself well versed in the issues taken up by contemporary art but the whole thing is nothing but obscene and tacky, another barefaced attempt at wielding power by showing a few beleaguered proles - the kind of people who'll never understand a bloody thing about art, even in their wildest dreams - who's boss now. But some solace may come from the knowledge that this lot won't be so cocky once the nobs start marching in.

 

'Red London

Aragon Tower, Pepys Estate, Deptford

Berlin Biennale 2006, ehem., Jüdische Mädchenschule, Auguststrasse

 

[1] The Festival Hall, the centrepiece and sole survivor of the 1951 Festival of Britain, is a mild, hybrid, unobtrusive version of the international modernism imported into Britain in the thirties. The contrast couldn't be greater with the uncompromising, awe-inspiring concrete starkness of its Brutalist successor. It's doubtful that New Labour, which was 'cool' and modern only within acceptable limits, would have celebrated its accession to power in something as scary, raw and suffocatingly erotic as, say, the nearby (then still unrenovated) Hayward Gallery. No one was ever ready for such a thing, some of its most striking examples having met a violent demise. On the radical novelty of the Brutalist aesthetics and its uniqueness in British architectural history: Katherine Shonfield, Walls Have Feelings. Architecture, Film and the City (London, New York: Routledge, 2000).

[2] To the rescue comes the first Owen: a young man, young man of great eloquence and tremendous talent, a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist who reduced to a stunned silence many a Tory minister on telly. He's one of the few people to stick up for the universally ridiculed 'Chavs' (apart from Julie Burchill, but we don't give a toss) and denounce the in-built classism of the poltico-media complex, albeit with a marked tendency to romanticise the working class as one monolithic, homogeneous entity subjected to a power uniformly exerted from above - as I said, a staunch Marxist. Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (London, New York: Verso, 2011).

[3] Anna Minton, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the twenty-fisrt-Century City (London: Penguin Books, 2012), 83-103.

[4] And in comes the second Owen: the only true defender of British Brutalism - of which not much remains considering the recent wave of destruction, hence the sadly ironic rehabilitation of Balfron Tower in trendy circles - and of the radical political project underpinning it. He doesn't pull any punches when it comes to savaging the built legacy of Blairism, the overblown and in every way fraudulent vacuousness of the architecture it promoted. Brilliant through and through but a bit of a clever dick at times. Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the new Ruins of Great Britain (London, New York: Verso Books, 2010); A new Kind of Bleak. Journeys through Urban Britain (2012).

[5] Since then, the plans to pull down the Carpenters to redevelop it as a UCL campus have been scrapped. It's worth noting that a group of students occupied the University's main building in Central London in opposition to a 'regeneration' project that went against their own moral principles.

[6] On the contemporary city as the theatre of permanent, low intensity warfare and the re-importation into the heart of the West of technologies of control and subjugation first developed and tested in the Global South's metropolises: Stephen Graham, Cities under Siege. The new military Urbanism (London, New York: Verso, 2010).

[7] This quest for an authenticity supposedly to be found in the working class is deeply embedded in all areas of the national psyche - and not least in modern gay sexual culture (but that's another story). This is how traditionally working class neighbouhoods are viewed as the receptacle of a gritty realness by middle-class newcomers, who, from a safe distance and cushioned by privilege, objectify a way of life (and not lifestyle) deemed honestly simple and unspoilt by the artifices of bourgeois culture - and of course detest nothing so much as other gentrifiers taking that very illusion of authencity away from them: Maren Harnack, 'London's Trellick Tower and the pastoral Eye', in Matthew Gandy (ed.), Urban Constellations (Berlin: Jovis, 2011), 127-31.

[8] I do not wish here to poke fun at the preposterous claims to 'ultimate city living' (I'll save that for later), which Berlin - a city hitherto fairly immune to riverside displays of riches (the Spree is a pretty modest affair without the prestige enjoyed by, say, the Thames, the Danube or the Seine) - is now eagerly embracing. Its emblematic, and so far only example of conspicuous luxury is currently going up as part of the awfully misguided Mediaspree project, the removal of a section of the Wall to make way for the tower causing at the time considerable upset amongst Berliners. Once completed, Living Levels (feel the alliterative genius behind it), wedged between the river and a busy thoroughfare, will forlornly be overlooking what amounts to nothing more than a glorified industrial park. As for the Gehry 'icon' set to regenerate the Alexanderplatz, its future looks uncertain amid fears of collapsing U-Bahn tunnels.

[9] As part of the LCC's public art commissioning policy, a sculpture by Henry Moore, Draped Seated Woman, was purchased to embellish the collective spaces of the Stifford. During the disruption caused by the estate's demolition, and probably as no one was watching, 'Old Flo', as she was known to the locals, was herself decanted to a faraway sculpture park where she was restored (her breasts had savagely been spray painted silver!) and well looked after. After a campaign to have her returned to her former London home was launched in 2010, disputes have raged over whether she should stay in public ownership or sold off to the private sector to help finance essential council services.

[10] Catering for the new in-crowd was certainly less troublesome than a bunch of kinky gay men on the loose, as Hackney Council repeatedly threatened to get the place closed down on the grounds that patrons (i.e. consenting adults) were having sex on the premises - a gross intrusion that beggars belief in a city now positioning itself as a major pleasure destination for a mobile, international gay market. It is clear that this was but another abuse of power aimed at controlling a minority through intimidation and infantilisation (grown men were denied the right to enjoy their sexuality just as any form of institutional violence and deception is deemed legitimate to dispose of unwanted communities).

[11] Stuart Home, Slow Death (London: Serpent's Tail, 1996).

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