First posted on Medium.
‘London’s housing crisis’ is now a clichéd term: growth in population and an influx of outsiders has meant that homes are in high demand — many who cannot afford them are forced further to the peripheries, others are compressed more tightly into inner-city dwellings. Meanwhile, sections of the city are becoming emptied of people — buy-to-leave investors allowing property to remain unlived in as tower blocks that contain flats only available to the very rich shoot up across the metropolis. These apartments are inaccessible to all but those on extremely large salaries: a studio apartment in the new St George Wharf Tower costs almost £900,000. If a person were to buy this (with a mortgage), they would need to put down a deposit of about £132,000. They would then be faced with monthly interest payments of just over £3,000: to sustain this, they’d need a salary towards £100,000 and above. This person has either a very limited need for space, or somewhere else to live. Here lies one aspect of the problem: we are creating large portions of the city in which people will not live. A quick web search shows that, for the cost of simply paying back the interest on their mortgage, they could rent somewhere more than double the size in Chelsea. With this option, why would anyone want to make his or her home in a studio flat?
In the shadow of the towers
I moved to Vauxhall about a year ago — by then, the Tower at St George Wharf was, to the outside observer, finished. Prior to my move, my perception of the area was shaped by my infrequent rail journeys to-and-from Waterloo station, looking out of the window at the monolithic St George Wharf development (whose sheer, green-glassed ugliness is the only thing that stops it from being one of the most boring buildings ever constructed) and the similar, fortress-like bulk of the MI6 building. Alongside these, and from the raised platform of Vauxhall station, the Tower didn’t seem that out of place: just another dull dormitory development for unimaginative individuals. Living in the area, my attitude towards the development became more involved. The Tower was the precursor to an exciting future for Vauxhall: I heard that the famously grotty intersection at the south side of the bridge would become more pedestrian friendly; that a cinema would open up; that the area would become more ‘livable’. But I could not avoid acknowledging the reason behind these proposed changes — that the sky visible from my window would soon become obscured by a thick, artificial reed-bed of impossibly tall, glassy towers. Emails from local resident groups arrived in my inbox, encouraging me to sign a petition against this, or express my support for that. Comment pieces appeared in the press with increasing frequency: architecture critics bemoaning the damage being done to London’s skyline, UNESCO threatening to place Westminster on its World Heritage in Danger list. In response, property magnates, such as Rob Tincknell, chief executive of the Battersea Power Station development a little further upriver, explain that their sites will be sociable, ‘village-like’ places, where neighbours know one another and drink their coffee together at artisanal cafes run by local people. As Jonathan Prynn of the Evening Standard asks, though, ‘how will he stop Battersea Power Station simply becoming yet another empty mausoleum owned by foreigners who are rarely there to turn the lights on?’ Even if Tincknell pulls off his dream to create village populated by ‘Londoners’ (a group for which he presents his Malaysian boss, Tan Sri Lew, as a prime example: a man who spends one week in six in UK capital), the reality of these riverside developments is that they remain cold, unenjoyable places to spend any time at all. I doubt even Frank Gehry can change that. The buildings are too high, and too close. The ‘landscaped courtyards’ of St George Wharf shiver in the constant shadow of the block’s 22 storeys, overlooked by dozens of tiny balconies arranged in a kind of mutual panopticon. Their owners are afforded not a riverside vista, but an unobstructed view of the apartments of their neighbours. As a pedestrian, you get the sense of being both subject to the gaze of hundreds of invisible residents, and a peeping tom. There’s no mystery to these glass buildings. They readily reveal the mundane material lives of their residents: leather furniture, artless walls and shirts hung out for another day at the office. A riverside walk alongside them leaves you feeling heavy and inhuman: I have felt the same when in Canary Wharf, the developments in Wandsworth, and Paris’s La Defense.
Who sees the London skyline?
This is where the abstract, totalising views of UNESCO and the architecture critics of fall short: their focus on the visual impact of these developments on the London skyline barely begins to scratch at the surface of their real, deep-rooted ugliness. The fact that a tall tower is visible from Parliament Hill is insignificant. Its real effects are felt at its foot, where the tower’s height seems to transmute into physical mass, bearing down on the pedestrians below; its breadth blocks the sunlight for those unlucky enough to live in its huge shadow. Vauxhall and Nine Elms might seem to be empty, post-industrial sites, but people do live there, in Victorian terraces, estate blocks, houseboats and previous noticeably smaller, riverside developments. Here, the London skyline is a meaningless concept: in South London, the city rarely appears whole. You just find yourself in it. The towers aren’t simply an aesthetic issue: they impose on all the senses, and physically dominate the sky.
A city of absent gods
Michel De Certeau, the French scholar, writes of a trip he took to the top of the former World Trade Center in New York.
“To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Centre is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp… When one goes up there he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators…His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance. It transforms the bewitching world by which one “was possessed” into a text that lies before ones eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar eye, looking down like a god”
At the top of such a tower, a person is separated from the complex morass of the city below: a city that confronts you with noise, smells, dirt and people. The city of people. Living in the tower allows the resident to absolve him or herself of the responsibilities and realities of being a ‘citizen’, of becoming one of the populous. This is not a metaphor. London is becoming a city of absent gods. We cannot lay claim to any of their experiences, successes or failures, and they cannot comprehend any of ours. They travel by car, rarely breathing the same, polluted air that we do. They peer down on us from above: we look like ants from their vantage point. I booked myself in to see a studio flat at the Tower at St George Wharf. I approached it from the south, by foot: it is surrounded by more landscaped courtyards, and set in a small, walled-off compound. Passing two gates clearly intended for vehicle access, I walked to the riverside, expecting to find a smaller pedestrian entrance. There was none — I returned to the large metal gates and buzzed myself through, to be met by a smart doorman wearing a bowler hat and white gloves. The foyer of the Tower is, as you would expect, very similar to that of a big, new-ish hotel: leather sofas, a widescreen TV showing 24 hour news, and a glass bookshelf exhibiting a number of literary-sounding novels bound by aesthetically inclined publishers (Persephone Books and Everyman, if you’re wondering). The estate agent was a large, helpful man who didn’t ask too many questions, and clearly excelled at making his clients feel at ease. He took us to the 13th floor, and into the apartment. There’s very little to say about the flat itself. One wall was entirely glass, looking out towards the south west: a view of New Covent Garden Market, a portion of the railway, and the slate-grey sprawl of London’s southern suburbs. It was a studio, so the kitchen and living area occupied the same space. Tucked at the far end of this room was the bed, hidden behind a sliding screen. The bathroom was situated to the right of the door as you enter: clad in marble, it was probably the most pleasant part of the apartment. All this for £880,000. The arithmetic doesn’t add up. Anyone earning enough to buy or rent this apartment would, surely, be very unhappy to live in a tiny studio with a grey, suburban vista. Remove the possibility of a permanent tenant and the reason for the existence of the Tower becomes obvious: it is property. Not property in the way that my own home is property, or the fact that the computer I type this on is property: something that I use and live with on a daily basis. The Tower is the physical manifestation of an abstract kind of property. The flats it contains are ‘investments’, they are there to form part of a portfolio, much like stocks and shares. Or worse, as Ben Judah might suggest, they are money laundries. It seems that the Vauxhall and Nine Elms ‘regeneration’ site is a lie. It is not being built to make the most of a currently under-exploited part of London. It is being built to turn a portion of London into a physical stock exchange, with no consideration of the real spaces it is creating and corrupting. In another sense, the flats offer a kind of quantitative easing: they create the illusion of an answer to the city’s housing crisis while driving the inflation of property prices through over-valuation. London’s love affair with property developers is a relationship that is becoming increasingly toxic: with each new tower that’s built, another part of the city is being irreversibly tied to high-rise. Land becomes ever more expensive, and developers have more power to justify their multi-storey eyesores on the grounds that they need a return on their investment. Prices will rise as long as the skyscrapers continue to do so, creating greater sections of the city that are so expensive that no-one can live in them. And so, the question arises: when all the towers are built and empty, who will live in London?