London +10 exhibition at the AA

Will Self has written an essay about London from 1989 to 2009 for the London +10 exhibition at the Architectural Association Gallery in London, which is on until March 26. For more details visit their website here. Here is the essay in full:

In 1989 I was working for the Grocer Magazine, the trade paper for the grocery business. They had offices in Southwark, and I was employed to run a small contract publishing company that was based in the building opposite: the Hop Exchange. This was – and remains – a fine example of High Victoriana: a long curved frontage with two-storey pilasters topped by a pediment featuring bas-reliefs of hops. Inside, the atrium had been used as a dealing floor for hop trading under natural light. It was just one of the many single ‘outcry’ commodity exchanges built in London in the latter half of the 19th century – coal, metal, stock etc – but the Hop had been damaged by fire in the 1920s and suffered an early conversion to office space.

Looking back now, this little corner of Southwark represented in embryo all of the main aspects of London’s phenomenology that were to develop in the subsequent two decades. In some cases these evolved into systems of thought – ways in which the city thinks quite rationally about itself; in others they became mental pathologies afflicting the collective unconscious of the metropolis, and producing neurotic/necrotic symptoms in the built environment and its inhabitants.

The Hop Exchange is adjoined by Borough Market, at that time still essentially a wholesale fruit and vegetable market, but just beginning to be encroached upon by the boutique retailing that was transmogrifying the old productive relations of the city into consumer ones. Further east along the river, on the banks of the old Pool of London, boutique retailing had taken root in Hays Galleria, but the littoral between there and Tower Bridge still contained interwar public housing, together with bomb sites upon which the only rooted things were ruderals. Of course, the new Conran cantonment was being speedily developed in the old warehouse quarter beyond Tower Bridge: a flotilla of high-end restaurants heading towards Canary Wharf on the ebb tide, the newly opened Design Museum its flagship.

Meanwhile, to the west of my office lay the hulk of Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station. We would often go and eat lunch on the benches along the embankment, marvelling at the great redbrick cliff face of the building, its organic quality underscored by the large stands of buddleia growing out from the crumbling pointing. It’s perhaps trite to observe that the generating life of the oil-fired power station was a scant 30 years (it ceased operation in 1981), but less so to consider that the elevation of the building was intended by Scott to mirror St Paul’s on the north bank, and that the chimney was deliberately lower than the cathedral dome.

Now the Herzog & De Meuron conversion of Bankside is established in the popular purview as iconic of all that London became in the noughties: a self-consciously designed built environment. I take issue with this, in as much as London is designed at all, it’s merely the same old metropolis, which, like someone who has just bought a new hat, stops repeatedly to check how it looks in the mirrored façade of an office block that’s been built to flip. The is an example of giganticism as social control – even if that control is the command to appreciate art – while all Herzog & De Meuron did to the exterior was to put what looks like a condom on top of the chimney. Perhaps this is intended as a prophylaxis against the insemination of aesthetic leisure by work – or religion.

If so, it hasn’t worked. Tate Modern is the agora of London’s cives aestheticus, an artocracy who rule over a capital whose economy since the Big Bang became dominated by soi-disant ‘financial services’ and the graphic design skills needed to interface between binary blips and more decadent perceptions. The high-art lite of London’s contemporary conceptualists – which became synonymous with ‘Cool Britannia’ during the 1990s – had its origins in the recession of 1991-2 (itself precipitated by an electronic blizzard), but became the home furnishing of the seriously rich – derivatives traders, an exiled Russian kleptocracy – that New Labour was seriously comfortable with.

Whether in the ateliers and galleries of Hoxton or the design studios and copy shops of the West End, London’s graphicism is what must be emphasised: the city has never really had a Modernist period, only a postmodern career referencing its own early modern detailing. Modernism is a bijoux in London, an Oscar Niemeyer pavilion to be worn on the breast of Julia Peyton Jones as she welcomes the artocracy to one of her Serpentine Gallery parties.

But in 1989, the salvation of Bankside lay six years in the future. Civic pride in the city was in abeyance: the dissolution of the Greater London Council by Margaret Thatcher meant, paradoxically, that London was in its natural, anarchic and essentially ungovernable state. The paradigm for the massive redevelopment of Docklands that had got underway five years earlier, went back to the medieval granting of ‘enterprise zones’ off the Strand to the Hanseatic League and other trading freebooters. If there is a discernible stratigraphy to London’s civic space it was still a midden then, with County Hall senescent and Scott’s Battersea Power Station the western brick-end to Bankside.

Twenty years later, the Mayoralty and the Greater London Authority do battle in a City Hall that ogles the Tower of London from the formerly weedy patch. This is democracy on Norman Foster’s half-shell – and as such it’s difficult not to believe it may yet be thrown on the rubbish patch. More timeless was the last public event to take place on the site before the lopsided oculus was erected around its helical core – David Blaine’s 44-day endurance stunt suspended in a Plexiglas box above Potters Field Park. It may have been September 2003, but the response of the crowd to the American’s exhibitionist hunger strike was the London mob at its most reassuring and timeless. They mooned him, they taunted him with food and drink – they behaved like any Tudor rabble bear-baiting in the Liberty of Southwark.

At the time it recalled to my mind the poll tax riots of 13 years before. I had witnessed the breakout from the ‘Battle of Trafalgar Square’: phalanxes of police, ill-protected by their Plexiglas shields, retreating under a hale of scaffolding poles up the Charing Cross Road. The juxtaposition between trendy photographers shooting the action from behind their own makeshift barriers of milk crates, the tourists still manfully masticating behind the plate glass window of the Aberdeen Steak House, and the melee in the street was, again, London at its theatrical best.

Looking back on two decades of riotous – and near riotous – assembly it occurs to me that the mass gallery-going incepted by the Blair regime after 1997 stands in the same relation to the anti-Iraq War demonstrations of February 2003 (and, of course, the annual May Day anti-capitalist jamborees) as the boutique consumerism of Borough Market and Butler’s Wharf does to the bohemian squatting putsches of the 1970s and early 1980s. Only through mass and spontaneous theatricality does London reassert its identity and reclaim its streets from the tedious window-dressing of public art and state-sanctioned aestheticism.

When the state attempts to muscle in on the act, the results are arid and stylised. The funeral of Diana Spencer attempted a reassertion of the Imperial pantomime: the death cart dragged up the Mall to Trafalgar Square and then down Whitehall, symbolically linking the foci of London – and hence metropolitan – power. But it was one of the first definitive examples of the media creating a mass negative feedback loop that I can recall, as throughout that week in August 1997 millions of grief-stricken proles were anticipated along the route – so millions decided to stay away. In so doing, the nation talked itself down from its hysteria, and now, only 12 years on, I was able to speak to a class of London sixth-formers, the majority of whom didn’t know who she was.

But to go back to Southwark in 1989, to walk through the old LCC, Guinness Trust and Peabody estates in back of Borough High Street, or even further afield into the Brutalist hinterland of the Walworth Road, was to enter terrain that by today’s standards remained open. The great encapsulation and disbursement of London’s public housing stock was by then underway, but as yet the majority of flats were walk-up and there were hardly any CCTV cameras or video intercom systems. If London’s civic space has in the past 20 years adjusted its hat brim, London’s housing has increasingly mugged it up for the cameras.

The ceding of public space to enacted paranoia is typified by London’s fetishisation of security. For the rich this has been embodied in property pornography: double-page spreads of houses spreading their wings in the licensed brothels of ‘village’ London (the priapic bubble of which was pumped up by speculative Viagra). For the poor, still reeling from the high-rise purge of the early 1980s, the prescription of lower-density estates came with a rider: you have to pay for it. And so a wedge has been driven into London’s working class, with the Thatcherite climbers aspiring to low-rise units that must be secured against feral hoi polloi. Now we have ‘privatised’ estates, run by housing trusts or pseudo-companies, and a rump of sink public estates. In both cases the implementation of measures intended to humanise communal space – barrier walls, walkways, etc – have resulted in balkanisation.

If I emphasise these developments in the built environment, it’s because they represent the material enactment of the mounting anxiety concerning crime in London. For the last decade or so, when I wrote political and social commentary weekly for the Evening Standard, crime has never strayed far from the top of the agenda. To advocate robust public-housing construction during this period – as I did – was not so much anathema as inconceivable, like arguing for the reintroduction of dinosaurs to the Thames Valley. Yet the large-scale housing policies that have been proposed – one thinks of John Prescott’s Gateway plan, the toxic social housing on the Greenwich peninsula, or now the ‘thriving new community’ predicated on the Stratford Olympics site – all contain within them the same divisive dialectic.

Underlying the debates on crime and the fetishisation of property has been the largest socio-cultural transformation that the city has undergone since the mass inward migration that stacked up redbrick Victorian London. In 1989, the ethnic minority population of inner London was perhaps 10%, a decade later it is 25% overall, and in some places far higher. The impact of this is the elephant in the room, not simply because of old prejudices now remoulded by the fascistic British National Party, but because the liberal left’s tolerance of immigration – both legal and illegal – has been essentially schizophrenic. The kulturkampf has prided itself on ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’; in the 1990s, Blairites took up the ‘multicultural’ standard initially raised by Ken Livingstone’s GLC regime in the previous decade, but underlying this was an economic imperative for cheap – and in many cases off-the-cards – labour.

Not that the ethnic minority populations are all gastarbeiter – far from it: London has become the cosmopolitan city it always prided itself on being by natural increase, and while the process may threaten the ‘donut’ configurations of North American cities – a black core and a white ring of outer suburbs – in practice the psychogeography of the city has militated against this. The same rich-cheek-by-poor-jowl mishmash has been overlain with new centres of ethnic settlement – Asian in Southall and northern suburbs such as Edgware and Finchley; Eastern European in Ealing, and so forth. London in 1989 was still a whitish city that shut down when the pubs did and closed substantially on Sundays; now the old arterial routes from the centre into the suburbs are rivers of light, coursing with multicultural commerce 24-hours a day throughout the year.

In 1989, I began work on my first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity. One of the narratives in this story cycle concerns a secret cabal of motorcycle couriers whose leader can go into a trance that allows him to extrapolate from the vehicle flows on any given thoroughfare to envision the state of the traffic citywide. The story is entitled – suitably enough – Waiting; and while not wishing to pretend to prophetic powers, looking back I see that this extrasensory gift does prefigure the in-car SatNav that has become intrinsic to London minicabs, allowing those more familiar with the street plan of Lodz or Lagos than London to make a living.

The story was inspired by my own slavish addiction to driving a car in London, and in particular to my demented experience of commuting to work from Shepherd’s Bush to Southwark during a series of tube strikes that the RMT called that year. The absurdity of paying for what had become essentially a hut-on-wheels struck me forcibly at that time, although it took me another decade to begin to seriously address my habit (and I wasn’t cured until 2007!). Of course, transport policy is the very essence of London’s politics, its culture and its economy: a gridlock of passionate concerns revving in real-time and emitting the poisonous hydrocarbons of heightened emotion.

During my time as a London commentator I have written more words on the vexed issues of transport, by a factor of 10, than I have on anything else. The significance of transport is enshrined in London’s governance: the mayoralty and assembly that have notionally been in charge of the city for the past decade are in reality Potemkin creations, largely funded by Westminster, behind which lurk a real responsibility for managing the tube and bus systems. The Thatcherite utility privatisations of the 1980s reached their apotheosis in the misconceived carve up of the Tube in line with the already maladaptive disjunction of British Rail.

All of the citywide elections of recent years have hinged directly on transport policy with Ken Livingstone’s adoption of congestion charging being the most contentious. The victory of Boris Johnson in May of 2008 was a function of a campaign that specifically targeted suburban voters who’re welded to their huts-on-wheels; it was the triumph of outer over inner London, of Little England over the polyglot inner city. Livingstone’s enormous expansion of London buses, the Jubilee Line and the Docklands Light Railway notwithstanding, the last two decades have seen a stultification of public-transport infrastructure unmatched by any other metropolis in the West.

I’d go further: it’s arguable that there has really been no significant improvement in interurban transportation since Yerkes completed the deep-level tube system in the 1900s: average journey times by road and by public transport remain essentially the same, and it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that London, having been the first world city, thrived during the pre-First World War period of globalisation, but then went on – in much the same material condition – to the next. It’s worth noting that the Crossrail project was initially floated in 1974 (when its completion would’ve cost a derisory £300 million), and again in the early 1990s. The political class have repeatedly cited the 2012 Olympics boondoggle as the impetus necessary to carry it to completion – evidence if any were needed that strategic planning is an oxymoron when applied to London.

I am conscious of having barely picked at the scabrous surface of London in this essay. To assay the heft of this gigantic conurbation over the past 20 years, to identify its regularities and recursions is a task appropriate to a shelf-full of weighty books rather than a couple of thousand words. Thankfully, one thing that has changed for the better since 1989 is a growing consciousness of the city as an object of study: no bookshop is now without an entire section, and so London’s phenomenology has an increasingly sentient character. The city may be heading for disaster, but it does so with eyes wide open.

I would like to seize, however, upon a fitting motif – or, rather, a fulcrum; one big enough to lever the city’s recent history into starker relief. Standing at roughly the midpoint is the millennium, the celebration of which entailed a rash of projects most of which failed to reach fruition. Of those that did, the fiasco of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, and the sight of queuing nabobs let down by inadequate transport provision on New Years Eve has become synonymous in the public mind with London’s inability to enact grandes projets in the manner of our continental cousins. This is just, but to my way of thinking the real and definitive break between the 1990s and noughties occurred a year earlier, when, at the prodigious speed of two degrees per hour, the Millennium Wheel (aka London Eye) was winched upright on the embankment next to County Hall and opposite the Houses of Parliament.

I took a personal interest having toured the construction site with one of the architects, David Marks, but while the project seemed exciting, the monumental Ferris wheel’s ephemeral character (it was originally intended to only be in operation for five years), made it an unlikely London signature structure – with all that this implies. However, with more than 30 million trips undertaken on the Wheel to date it has come to epitomise London’s uneasy self-actualisation. The arc described in ascending the wheel facilitates a novel perspective on the city as it ‘opens up’ like a child’s pop-up book. The Wheel emphasises London as spectacle, London as a tourist destination the popularity of which is predicated on the ebbs and flows of the international currency market. Only from the Wheel can the current of power that runs from the City to Westminster be fully apprehended.

On my first trip on the Wheel, the building that loomed largest was the old Brutalist headquarters of the Ministry of Transport on Marsham Street – a building the size of which couldn’t be apprehended at ground level. On my second trip, the building had been razed and replaced with a relatively inconspicuous Home Office – soon to become the Kafkaesque Ministry of Justice. No other view so elegantly articulated the city’s ability to ceaselessly self-cannibalise, while remaining essentially the same.

© Will Self, 2009

To buy London +10, go here.