Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Success and failure: are communal utopias still possible?

I’ve often heard of the Barbican complex being referred to as a successful example of utopia, an ideal community in contrast to the Heygate estate’s‘legacy’. Well, I would like to propose a reflection on this theme.  I’ve been to the Barbican very few times and, yes, I actually thought that it would be nice to live there but, is it true that it can be considered as a still working communal dream? 

The Barbican estate was built between 1965 and 1976 with certain premises; nowadays an apartment costs a price that I am quite sure none of us could even dream of affording and many of those beginning premises are gone forever. Moreover the Barbican Centre (in the website described as the largest performing arts centre in Europe) should be a culture brand grown and reinforced within the last 30 years (the Barbican centre was opened in 1982) but, what would be the answer if we were to ask foreigners what they consider to be THE cultural contemporary institution of London? 

I am almost sure that most people would have almost no awareness of the Barbican’s existence and would quote Tate Modern as ‘winner’. Tate Modern achieved in the last ten years the creation of a world wide famous brand which is often a certainty when the matter concerned is that of organising exhibitions, events and promotions. Tate Modern in ten years managed to produce a strong brand that is no less enviable than the Barbican’s; it could be said, no offense, that Barbican failed to fulfil its premises while Tate has never stopped building new ones and that is why it is widely considered to be the new ‘real’ contemporary cultural brand. 

In this context, I think, the Neobankside re-evaluation project has optimal  chances to become the New Utopia. For these reasons I believe that nowadays the time for community utopias is over, also due to a natural capitalist development within consumer’s necessities; therefore, the Neobankside, as a Private Dream, could be the perfect Utopia to be desired: a new luxurious forlorn vision to be lived in an undisturbed heaven.

 [This is just a stream of consciousness of a foreigner]

Architectural Folly

Anyone who has ever been to Redchurch Street will be shocked to see LondonNewcastle's 'regeneration' proposals.  Follow the links below to see their 'design-orientated' plans to monopolise the skyline of an area characterised by low-rise buildings, independent retail and market stalls.  The company's high-rise, mixed-use development would be sorely out of place and has been met with a mixture of ridicule, disgust and disbelief by local campaigners such as open-shoreditch. 

"OPEN Shoreditch member Jago Action Group is taking up arms against the gross over development of the Huntingdon Estate, the light industrial estate bordered by Bethnal Green Road and Redchurch Street, next to the Tea building. Developers Londonnewcastle are so passionate about the neighbourhood that they want to bless this low-rise mixed residential quarter with a 25-storey tower block.

In a cynical bid to buy off Tower Hamlets development committee, Londonnewcastle proposes to build affordable housing squidged between two busy railway lines half a mile from the gleaming tower block. The 'fact' sheet issued in support of the development application omits just one really crucial fact: the Huntingdon Estate application is for a 25-story tower block. And neither do the pictures tell the real story, as only eight floors of the proposed tower can be seen.

In a covering email, the developers claim to be 'tremendously passionate about the location, the area and it's possibilities...' There's no doubting their passion – to dig themselves out of the large hole in their balance sheet, as a result of taking an option on the site at the height of the property boom. Faced with a site cost of double what's it's currently worth, Londonnewcastle is desperately trying to claw back potential losses by bequeathing the neighbourhood a monument to its folly."

Above excerpt quoted from the article 'ditch The Block' - http://open-shoreditch.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, 20 April 2011


“Geography is a system of classification, a mode of location, a site of collective national, cultural, linguistic and topographic histories.”

Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma

How does a non-place take place?

‘Mapping’ is an ongoing investigation of lines, territories and forces which unfolds economic fluxes and urban plans apt to advertise and actualize new developments. This practice of ‘unbelonging location’ is constantly in the process of being formed, deconstructed and re-arranged. By showing the social milieux and the mental emplacements in new ways, the agency of mapping engages also a change in perceptual semiotics pregnant with social signficance and political potential. The links between regeneration projects, metropolitan hallucinations and counter-cartographies foster the critical dimension of geography – a theory of navigational principles and an arena of topographical layers of meaning. Consequently, if we understand the study of space relations as a critical and creative activity that opens up a fan of multiform productions and power relations, utopia – as the alleged chimera of space – may offer us an insight into the ambivalent world of urban development.
How do we map the interweaving dynamics of speculative regeneration plans and actual local conditions?

London Bridge Station Redevelopment Plan:
Elephant & Castle Master Regeneration Plan:
Southwark Council:
Southwark Maps:
Moveflat Value Map:
Gumtree Elephant & Castle:
Gumtree Southwark:


Saturday, 16 April 2011

Books on Modernism and Urban Regeneration

I often feel like Owen Hatherley should be paying me to do his PR.  Anyone interested in modernist buildings and notions of 'utopia' (i.e. us) should make time to read this erudite and fearlessly critical book on 20th Century modernism. 

According to Simon Reynolds, Hatherley's "...ideas-packed and intensely-felt book is neither a misty-eyed memorial nor a dour inquest, but a verging-on-erotic mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Rediscovering the enchantment of demystification and the sexiness of severity, Hatherley harks forward to modernism's utopian spirit: critical, radically democratic, dedicated to the conscious transformation of everyday life, determined to build a better world."

I am currently reading his more recent publication, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain - excerpts of which I have quoted below.  

Two themes very relevant to our research are outlined in Hatherley's introduction.  One is the concept of Pseudomodernism (an architectural 'style of consumption' not far from our understanding of Neo-Utopianism) and the other is the "under-investigated word 'regeneration'".

Pseudomodernism (extracts)

"The New Modernism, like the new social democratic parties, is one emptied of all intent to actually improve the living conditions of the majority.  Instead, the social use of the pseudo-modernist building, forever groping for the Bilbao effect, appears in a rather Victorian manner to be the uplifting of the spirit via interactive exhibits and installations...

...its [Pseudomodernism's] forebears are in the aesthetics of consumption and advertising, in forms designed to be seen at great speed, not in serene contemplation...  It should not surprise us that a style of consumption would return under neoliberalism, but the formal affinities of Pseudomodernism with this aesthetic offers an alternative explanation for what often seems an arbitrary play of [architectural] forms...

...It allows us to reinterpret what purports to be an aesthetic of edification as one of consumption. In the computer-aided creation of futuristic form, today's architects are producing enormous logos, and this is only appropriate.  The architecture once described as deconstructivist owes less to Derrida than it does to McDonalds... (pxxix)

Regeneration (extracts)

...A major change from the suburbanism of the Thatcher and Reagan version of neoliberalism is a new focus on the cities, something which is usually encapsulated by the under-investigated word 'regeneration'.  Indeed, any form of building in an urban area is usually accompanied by this term...(pxxiii)

These 'transformations of space' which Hatherley describes as 'regenerated areas of bourgeois colonization' are, it should be remembered, "fundamentally different in their social consequences to the superficially similar 'comprehensive redevelopment' of the postwar period...That is, the Modernism of the icon, of the city academies where each fundamentally alike yet bespoke design embodies a vacuous aspirationalism; a Modernism without the politics, without the utopianism, or without any conception of the polis; a Modernism that conceals rather than reveals its functions; Modernism as a shell..." (pxxii - xxiv)

Friday, 15 April 2011

The New Homes Bonus

In an attempt to tackle the UK's housing shortage, an important new government policy - The New Homes Bonus - has been drawn up to reward local councils each time a new home is built.  The rewards, based on the council tax band of individual properties, offer monetary bonuses for each of the first six years the property is occupied.

According to the government, "The New Homes Bonus addresses the disincentive within the local government finance system for local areas to welcome growth. Until now, increased housing in communities has meant increased strain on public services and reduced amenities. The New Homes Bonus will remove this disincentive by providing local authorities with the means to mitigate the strain the increased population causes. This will ensure that the economic benefits of growth are returned to the local authorities and communities where growth takes place."

The premise is ostensibly good, however, as today's Channel 4 news Fact Check report reveals, there is a problem: the scheme will disproportionately benefit affluent areas such as Surrey where there is a greater demand for high-cost 'larger executive homes'.   In turn, local councils in more deprived areas in the North of the country and in London boroughs such as Hackney, will receive a lesser amount of 'bonus' money to fund vital public services.

Government subsidies will offer local councils in areas such as Waverly and St Albans an average of £1,567 per new build; however councils in poorer areas such as Liverpool, Tower Hamlets and Hackney will receive an average of £1,268. 

As Cathy Newman explains, "linking the New Homes Bonus to council tax is flawed".  Rather than focus on meeting demands for affordable homes and social housing; the scheme rewards those councils that provide high-cost accommodation for already affluent areas with a higher monetary incentive.  As outlined in the Channel 4 News report, the policy has already received criticism from communities and organisations who are worried that the scheme will discourage the building of new flats and social housing developments in poorer areas, as the financial return will be an average of 26% less.  As well as this, the scheme will perversely favour the construction of executive housing and exacerbate the north-south divide, according to housing experts. (Jamie Doward, The Guardian, 27 February 2011)

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Things to look at

The image to the left has been lifted from Southwark Council 2009-2016 Housing Strategy summary (download as PDF  here). It features on the page 14. entitled 'Our Vision' under which they state the following:

The overarching vision for the Southwark Housing Strategy 2009 to 2016 is:

“To improve residents’ lives by providing high quality homes and housing services that promote successful and inclusive communities.”

To achieve our vision we have agreed four strategic objectives. These are to:

1 - Improve the quality of existing housing and use it more efficiently
2 - Increase the supply of good quality housing
3 - Enable choice while meeting housing needs
4 - Prevent homelessness and reduce the use of temporary accommodation.

Certainly, there is a lot to be said on the bizarre position of these objectives next this super enhanced image of the Strata tower...

I don't have time to go through all of it right now, but document details the housing plans for the whole borough and has some interesting 'facts' and 'figures' and layouts that we might find useful.

Also if people haven't seen it, there's a advertisement 'movie' on the Strata London website which is, quite simply, wonderful.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Friday, 8 April 2011

Initial Ideas

CGI of London's NEO Bankside development due for completion in May 2011

Neo-utopianism is an online repository for ideas, texts and resources on urban regeneration and the production of space.  Managed by a team of MA Visual Cultures students at Goldsmiths College, it documents the development and evolution of a unique, collaborative project.  Still very much in its infancy, the project began with a series of informal discussions based around notions of space, urbanism and counter cartography.  Texts such as Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and David Harvey's Spaces of Global Capitalism - amongst many others - have provided a rich loam from which to develop our own intellectual preoccupations.

   Conflating theoretical, philosophical, social and economic contexts, our aim is to approach the contentious issue of urban regeneration from a distinctive (and challenging) perspective.  By researching and scrutinising the semantics and rhetoric of regeneration schemes - from the claims made by speculative developers, corporate bodies and local councils; to the voices and statements of affected residents and community activists - we aim to develop a project which reveals the problematic relationship between the producers and the inhabitants of space.

   In our reading, the so-called 'failure' of late modernist utopian developments, such as Elephant & Castle's Heygate Estate (completed in 1974), has made way for a new kind of utopia; a utopia that cares less about social progress and more about luxury living and capital gain.  As seen in Elephant & Castle, long term residents are 'decanted', their houses (soon to be) demolished, whilst councils and 'property solution providers' make plans for shiny, new mixed-use developments 'where every aspect of life is catered for'

Illustrative sketch of the site of the current Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle, a new Town Park will become the focus to a new residential quarter.

   Whilst we are interested in the social, aesthetic and economic affects of these neo-utopian developments, our main preoccupation is how these affects are produced.  By whom are they produced and who do they affect?  How do development companies operate and present themselves?  How do communities organise themselves in response to the social, architectural and spatial transformation of the areas they live in?  How do they defend, encourage, or actively challenge the incremental process of urban regeneration?

   By comparing the desires, demands and aspirations of the producers and inhabitants of areas undergoing urban transmogrification; we hope to develop an archive of original research from which to produce a publically accessible project – a website, a campaign, an event, a catalogue, an exhibition, a company... or a dynamic collection of works -  which cogitates the various ways in which value – both cultural and monetary – is perceived and produced through space. 

   It is important to note that whilst many residents have been displaced and angered by the proposals and processes of urban regeneration projects, many areas and communities have greatly benefited from them.  In turn, we are aware that the regeneration of local and historical areas is not a case of black versus white; of preservation versus development or change, but a complex and delicate dialogue between communities, councils and capital investors. 

   By focusing on areas in the interstitial stages of development – such as London’s Bankside – we wish to map how value; an abstract and intangible concept, is construed by different members of society.  Subsequently, we hope that our research into the rhetoric and presentation of regeneration projects will provide an interesting framework from which to develop our own opinions on how space is valued, transformed and commodified.   

      From their initial linguistic construction to their eventual implementation, urban regeneration projects are steeped in hyperbole and promotional language.  Live like a King in a 'a visionary, 21st century living environment'; in a development 'unsurpassed anywhere in the world'.  It goes without saying that the transmogrification of the built environment requires more than just bricks and mortar; it requires a vision, a plan and a persuasive development strategy. 

One Hyde Park - a living experience 'unsurpassed anywhere in the world', completed in January 2011
   The language of urban planning; primarily speculative in nature, promotes social and economic advancement, cultural benefits and the general betterment of an area.  Fundamentally, it endorses a space which does not yet exist; a space in a state of becoming.  This fascinating semantic field; itself a utopian construct, is littered with bromidic sentiments like - the development will  'improve the life chances of individuals'.

   Full of grand claims and ambitious (or utopian) objectives; the language used on company websites, advertisements and marketing campaigns verges on the platitudinous and, in turn, provides an interesting contrast to the more empirical observations of the inhabitants and users of space.  

   Dependent on an impending, and volatile, future, the idealised visions of urban regeneration projects often fail to match up with the lived reality of (social) space.  How will these new neo-utopian projects fare in comparison to late modernist housing projects which, as Bernard Tschumi suggests, have failed to fulfil their utopian aims.  Writing in 1975, he states;

Most people concerned with architecture feel some sort of disillusion and dismay.  None of the early utopian ideals of the twentieth century has materialized, none of its social aims has succeeded.  Blurred by reality, the ideals have turned into redevelopment nightmares and the aims into bureaucratic policies.  The split between social reality and utopian dream has been total, the gap between economic constraints and the illusion of all-solving technique absolute. [sic] (from ‘The Architectural Paradox’)

   Revealing the limits of architectural remedies, Tschumi implies that the ‘split’ between representations of space (as created through architecture, design or development projects) and the representational space of the lived (to use Lefebvre’s terms) is irresolvable.  A fascination with this distinction (which according to Tschumi forms part of the very ‘nature of architecture’) lies at the heart of our project.  A mapping not a tracing, an enquiry not an answer; our project is an open, experimental investigation into the dialectics of space, value and urban regeneration.