It’s been seven years since I last lived in London. I’ve visited of course, but in that way that you visit a family member or friend that you used to like more. Berlin’s not far away, but work, busy lives, you know. So London is now a foreign city to me, even though I have lived here for far more years than anywhere else. Returning, it seems busier, noisier, more chaotic, dirty, badly planned (or unplanned) and always badly built. Although I am living in Lewisham.
London’s urban history is also somehow more overwhelming. Berlin’s built biography is (mainly) nasty, brutish and short. And endlessly fascinating. It’s all about the big narrative, city as metaphor for nation. A 19th century industrial city that’s been stamped all over by the 20th. London, by contrast, is an accrual of layers over two millennia, mostly layers of commerce. The Blitz was an aberration.
In recent years I’ve read about London much more than I’ve actually experienced it. The ever-worsening inequality. The insanity of house prices. 230 new residential towers in the pipeline. Buy-to-leave. Bank accounts in the sky. I’ve just written a piece for an academic periodical on the theme of ‘High-Rise’ (both in the sense of the Ballard novel and the current residential tower investment mania). In it, I’ve said that Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron tower (often claimed* as the model for the tower in Ballard’s novel) is now surrounded by a thicket of new private residential towers, and is itself being privatised** as part of the great social cleansing of the city. I passed by it on Saturday, and an event was in full swing as part of a series based at the tower for the London Festival of Architecture. I didn’t make it to any of these, so I can’t criticise, but it does seem a great shame – not to say an irony – that the building is becoming a blessed icon just at the moment it ceases to serve its original (and still much needed) purpose.
Later that day I did go to an LFA event in the city, a round table discussion about regeneration with architects, students, academics and developers. But I couldn’t really understand what was being said (academic neo-english was the chosen language) and left early, depressed. I think the plight of those evicted by market-led sledgehammer regen (the only sort in London, as far as I can see) was discussed, and at least one of the panel was concerned, but I’m not sure.
*I argue that such comparisons miss the point, to a degree.
** It is though really, whatever you may read that attempts to describe the process otherwise.