At night, the string of red lights on top of London’s new private residential tower blocks and the cranes building them are impossible to miss.
Countless adverts in newspapers extol the spectacular views which these London high-rise developments afford. But with the sheer numbers under construction, pretty soon all the residents will see from their window will be the residents in the high-rise across the way, equally annoyed that their view over London has been spoilt. In fact there will be private residential tower blocks around Battersea Power Station which will have views on nothing but the blocks on either side. Instead of luxury city living they’ll experience toothpaste-in-a-tube city living. We could call them the squeezed wealthy.
Yet it wasn’t so many years ago that tower blocks were deemed to be a failure as places to live and their demolition was a high-profile event, heralded as a first, necessary step in improving local housing. What changed? To misquote the title of a collage by Richard Hamilton, “Just what is it that makes today’s skyscrapers so different, so appealing?”
The only difference between old and new which I can discern is the relative income of the residents.
Nowadays Council blocks are always called decaying, depressing and plagued by gangs. While new-build high-rises are always a benefit, bringing new infrastructure to the neighbourhood. When someone buys one of these new properties, do they honestly think that it replaced some sort of brownfield site, rather than former Council flats, and that no-one has been forced to move away against their wishes? Or that local facilities haven’t been knocked down to make the space available?
Where I live, we lost a purpose-build parade of shops on our Council estate, including an electrical outlet, to be replaced by a few purposely upmarket shops, including one dedicated to frozen yoghurt. To my mind those who move into a new luxury apartment would find an electrical shop useful now and again like everyone else, while the frozen yoghurt shop opened at the start of December, to no sign of a grateful public. If anyone expressed a local need for it, they must’ve whispered their request very softly. The owner of the fish and chip shop wanted to return, but he was told bluntly that his shop wasn’t upmarket enough for the “new” neighbourhood.
All the Council blocks required was a lick of paint here or a bit of pointing on the brickwork there. The lack of completely up-to-date maintenance was hardly enough to justify summary destruction and displacement. It’s the same level of justice and logic as the destruction of the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Also, to my eye, the new-builds display spectacularly less diversity of design than the blocks they replaced. Every regeneration project in London seems to employ the same few design templates. Has one architect cornered the market, or akin to fashion designers, do architects tend to copy each other’s work?
But there are rays of hope. A gentrified home may be worth thousands of pounds, but it doesn’t confer thousands of votes on the owner. A political party which genuinely addressed the issues of gentrification and displacement, without recourse to prejudice and foreigner bashing, would have thousands of votes waiting for it. While I simply can’t believe that everyone who buys a luxury apartment in a new London high-rise residential tower block lacks a social conscience, however incorrectly the local circumstances have been presented to them.
Look! See that red light on top a crane over there? I’d swear it wasn’t there yesterday. It signals another long-established community about to be destroyed. Like a peacetime blitz.