The modern city is a subject of huge, huge interest to me. I like to read everything and anything about it – its physical structures, the social relationships it allows, the psychological states it can give rise to. I have written about non-fiction books on the lonely side of the city (The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing) and its dark facets (Noir Urbanisms edited by Gyan Prakash). There’s another that briefly comments on the place and the role of the city in our present geological age (Adventures in the Anthropocene by Gaia Vince). Then there’s one on a specific city – New York – a clever blend of fiction and non-fiction (Everyone is Watching by Megan Bradbury).
Two weeks ago I discovered a terrific book on London in the 21st century called Slow Burn City (2016) by Rowan Moore (@RowanMoore) – architecture critic of the Observer. A trained architect, Moore has lived in London for more than 30 years. This book is both a celebration and a criticism of his city.
As he introduces Slow Burn City, Moore asserts that one decade into the twenty-first century, London had become “the global city above all others – not, as before, one of several” with money and people flowing in from everywhere. Historically, London has been special because of its flexibility, its looseness, its diversity of fabric. It has indeed been a city of commerce – but it has witnessed a creative interplay of private trade and public action. Moore explains:
Its [London’s] districts can change in response to the demands of a time, becoming industrial, artistic, crowded, depopulated, transient, established, more or less criminal, poor or posh and more or less associated with an ethnic, social or religious group.
The demands of the residents have been heard and considered. Over the centuries, London has responded to disasters and emergencies carefully and promptly – fire, pollution, disease, exploitation, overcrowding. In the twentieth century, foreigners began to feel at home here. Every minority could find a niche, whatever their race or creed or sexual orientation. London has dominated the world because it has been a “slow burn city”. It has renewed over time, with just the right speed; it has not been destroyed by change. Its communities have neither been stagnant for extended periods nor been uprooted too quickly.
But now market forces are “running riot”. Unregulated and unchecked, the principles of naked demand and supply have started wreaking havoc. London is the most desirable place on the planet and it is bound by a belt that keeps it from sprawling further. Hence, it is experiencing a crisis of generosity and availability. It has become the playground of a transnational elite. “London is to the billionaire as the jungles of Sumatra are to the orang-utans” – it is their natural habitat. Its mansions and towers are bought unseen at marketing events abroad – the oil kingdoms in the Gulf, South East Asia – very often by owners who will only live part of the year in them or not at all. Politicians, too, have been quick to court overseas investors.
Meanwhile, the property prices in the city go up, up, up and disturb and displace the existing population. Buying a decent flat in the city is a fantasy for the young. They cannot even afford rent. They are unable to have and raise children in London. If they moved out of London to look for cheaper territory, their careers would suffer. (See “My generation has to choose between a child or a career. We can’t afford both” by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett of the Guardian from April 14, 2017).
The current situation, Moore points out in the book, has been a result of both Conservative and Labour policies over the past few decades. Towards the end, he says:
There is already something wrong with a place that expels its poor and puts decent homes beyond the reach of many of its citizens. Even if the problem is seen only in functional and not human terms, a city will struggle to succeed if it can no longer house the people who teach, clean, nurse, treat, make, repair, build, plan, design, create, cook, serve, police, drive and entertain.
To the rich, the author presents a vision, and asks a question. He mentions a promotional film released by the British construction company Redrow (watch it below, it was later pulled after a Twitterstorm when viewers noted aesthetic similarities with the movie American Psycho). A suave city boy reflects on his struggle and rise to the top, then he looks down from his luxury penthouse:
Rowan Moore writes beautifully:
And property inflation creates the Redrow Psycho. This figure, of the lone suited man who, like the Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog,…
…looks down from his glass box on a huddled city, has become an emblem of aspiration for the sales literature of luxury apartments. It is an image of success, of someone who has climbed his way to the top, but also of isolation, of someone above and apart from his city, whose contact with his neighbourhood is limited to the pavement between a car and the tower’s lobby. His crystal cocoon is as different and as removed as can be from the brick streets around, and the only contact between one and the other is through wordless looking. Is this – whether for Redrow Psycho or for everyone else – the best, most desirable, most rewarding way of living in a city like London?
Moore closes with a manifesto for an ideal London, an open and available city. Some points he lays out are straight and simple (“national government must stop pushing up the price of homes”, “a city is not a gigantic housing estate”). There are other more technical proposals (“enforce the principle that the more conspicuous a building is, the more care should be taken in its design”, “let there be zones of hyperdensity”).
The problems that London is facing are of universal importance. Any great city in the world can fall prey to such “contests of appropriation and citizenship”. Slow Burn City deserves a large audience spanning the areas of art, urban planning, real estate and economics. Also, it will be a particularly useful read to those interested in the tensions between classes.
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