Wainwright is one of the better UK architecture journalists when it comes to lifting the lid on the legislation and underhand deals that are pushing through the current crop of massive developments. This piece from last Autumn, The truth about property developers: how they are exploiting planning authorities and ruining our cities, is a depressing litany of casual transgressions against good old fashioned urban grain in the pursuit of raw profit. Time and time again, concessions are given to grease the wheels of development and then, when the dust has settled and the tower cranes dismantled, the end result feels like a bit of a con (Is Rafael Vinoly’s Walkie Talkie Building the Ugliest in London?).
Perhaps it’s always been this way, and the only real difference today is scale. Although there’s no such thing as a totally inclusive city, the perils of a developer-led city effectively create state-sanctioned gentrification – Southwark Notes is a site with a focus on the knock-back and downsides to relentless development in just one area of the capital. Some kind of ‘readjustment’ is inevitable, but the question to ask is how will the new breed of London development accommodate an alternative economic landscape? The beauty of the Georgian or Victorian terrace was that it could be chopped up into smaller units as conditions demanded. The great post-war estates offer another kind of advantage in that they offer fixed, immutable accommodation of the kind that’s largely impervious to rampant economic change. But the new breed of development precludes either flexibility or the benefits of simplicity; you can’t very well sub-divide a riverside penthouse, nor does it offer a home for anyone other than a very highly targeted demographic. Even Redrow’s much-maligned ‘urban psycho‘ is aspirational on the part of the developers – most new-build units are sold as investments, easier to leave empty than to let, and estate agent lingo is as emotive and transparently false as any dubious sales scam.
What would change London for the better? An economic climate that sees working families able to rent and buy in developments that are explicitly not intended for them would go some way to rebalancing a chronically unbalanced city. We’re nowhere near this coming to pass; most of these spaces are still rising from the ground and will continue to do for a decade at least. Once the glossy hoardings are down and the rendered lifestyles all but forgotten, we foresee a glut of new urban ghost towns, shuttered and lonely, awaiting a climate that’ll shift their economic status so as to benefit society as a whole.