Malcolm Miles discusses how our new cities have been reclaimed by the elite for the publication of his new book Limits to Culture: Urban Regeneration vs. Dissident Art.
‘In April 2015, The Guardian reported that protestors had occupied a community nursery in north London (23 April, p. 17). The nursery, on the Dollis Hill estate, was threatened with closure when Barnet Council proposed redevelopment of the estate in an £11 million deal. Oddly, perhaps, the report uses the term ‘regeneration’ to describe the scheme to which residents objected, which would involve the demolition of 400 council homes to make way for a mix of private and social housing. Similarly motivated occupations were reported at the Carpenters Estate in east London and the Aylebury Estate in Southwark. Previously, the Heygate Estate in Southwark had been systematically run down, used as the setting for films of urban dereliction, emptied of both tenants and dwellers who had purchased their flats from the council, and demolished. When I saw it a few months ago, there were cranes around the site, and towers of apartments intended for young professionals from the financial district. In what might be an unintended irony, a hoarding invites passers-by to become part of the scheme. I doubt any of the Heygate’s former residents could afford it. London, it appears, is where a new brutalism is being pioneered in the interests of rapidly rising property values and the greater glories of neoliberalism.
Local authorities have been stripped of powers over the years, have sold a high proportion of council flats and houses under the right-to-buy policy without being able to replace them, and have lost a large slice of their budgets since 2010. They now seem unable to meet their obligations – if they still feel they are obligations – to house the non-privileged. But there is more to it: the redevelopment sector has become an aggressive industry, no longer tied to social issues, nor after the 2007 crash bothering to mask its operations with culture in the form of public art. It threatens a change in urban conditions which it will be difficult – and very expensive – for any future government to reverse. This is the new brutalism. Those who, being low-class, live in what have become expensive post-codes will have to move. It is an old story: the poor are periphalised, and the city belongs to new elites.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, a different kind of brutalism – an architecture using bare concrete in a truth to materials – produced tower blocks with walkways. The walkways were intended to be where residents would meet, talk and borrow cups of sugar, in a quaintly pastoral view of urban life borrowed from pre-war rural life. The architects, notably the Smithsons, meant well. For the most part, the new estates were high-specification. Although it became almost obligatory to refer to tower-block social housing as cheap and badly built, this was rarely the case. Thamesmead in south-east London, for instance, was relatively expensive, its built and open spaces on a generous scale. The difficulties were that, first, it was peripheral with not very good transport links; second, space was over-functionalised. In effect, functionalism, or the allocation of specific spaces for specific activities, sitting here, cooking there, borrowing sugar on the walkway, while allotted uses do not overlap, was how expert professionals told the poor they were unable to organise space for themselves. This ignored the complexities, invisible to outsiders, of the street in inner-city areas where functions occurred simultaneously and streets were extensions of living space for people in small houses. But the estates were well-intentioned. The architects and planners did their best.
Then Ronan Point in Newham collapsed after a minor gas explosion in May 1968 due to bad building practices and use of a relatively untested, unduly delicate, prefabricated panel system. Modern social housing was written off. Lost with it was a history of social change culminating in the post-war Welfare State and a feeling of renewal after the war and the defeat of fascism. While rubble sites remained, as did bread rationing, the new spirit was epitomised by the Festival of Britain, and the Festival Hall which offered luxurious spaces in a celebratory building for all citizens. Somehow, that history needs to be revived; and it needs, especially now, to be extricated from the failure of the modern vision in kinds of architecture which were innovative and seen as democratic in their day but are used now to damn the whole project of the better world which was always international modernism’s dream.
But there is a longer history, too: through the nineteenth century, improvements in the material conditions of the lower classes were both expressions of charity or social obligation and, under the surface, a means to prevent insurrection. These fears surfaced when crowds pulled down railings in the West End, but were always there under the surfaces of middle-class life, from 1789 onwards. What happened in France – again in 1830, 1848 and 1871 – could happen here. Shock horror!!! The opening of the Tate Gallery at Millbank, on the site of a redundant women’s penitentiary on a fly-ridden marsh south of the Thames, in 1897 was one moment in this history. The Prince of Wales called it a Temple of Art. The skilled working class were provided with model housing in new blocks behind it (which are still there), in which (as at Thamesmead) space was allocated to specific functions. The multi-use space for living, washing, cooking and eating was outlawed as indicative of loose morals or other transgressions. While work was the curse of the drinking classes, the workers were told to stop it and be more productive. Press cartoons contrasted Sunday afternoons at the pub and the art gallery, in tableaux of vice and virtue. Again, good intentions met fears of social dissolution (especially in Matthew Arnold’s view of culture as a last defence against chaos, which he called anarchy).
I wonder if the same narrative persisted through the twentieth century, so that the public art which became ubiquitous (and mainly institutionalised and boring, or at worst visual pollution) from the 1980s to the 2000s was underneath still a means of repression. Of course, members of the public were allowed to touch public sculptures, unlike in museums; or be photographed next to bronze likenesses of famous writers or film stars (as if the stardust rubs off – it doesn’t); but these postmodern statues merely reinforced a mythicized stardom, as the post-value society’s equivalent of the religious observances of a previous era. Property developers could also be collectors, storing their bronzes in public spaces like the Broadgate Business Park behind Liverpool Street station in London, and pretend to be enlightened, like Renaissance princes. With Tate Modern, in a redundant power station further along the Thames than the original Temple of Art, the narrative moves on. Art experience is purveyed in a fashionably industrial space, in an edgy setting which is still aestheticized, not quite exhibiting the urban edginess of residual social housing in sight of gentrified apartments, but not far off. The new BoHos like it. And Tate has been remarkably successful in attracting publics to its Turbine Hall, shops and various cafés (maybe to the pictures as well). Tate Modern is a meeting place, where tourists go, and still a temple of art although of a different kind now than in the 1890s. Its extension offers apartments overlooking the Thames at £3-5 million. That’s about a tenth of the top floors of The Shard. Get one while you can. Anyone can buy them, you just need the money.
Meanwhile, back in Barnet, hundreds of people of all ages will be displaced. They are poor. They don’t count. With the demolition of Heygate Estate, a London-based arts organisation put forward a proposal from a North American artist, said to be famous (but now dead), for a pyramid made from concrete liberated by the demolition. It was turned down. Developers no longer want a cultural mask. The new brutalism of the redevelopment sector is postcode clearance, only about money, and on a scale and with a social venom reminiscent of Baron Haussmann’s clearance of the working-class quarters of Paris for Napoleon III in the 1850s and 1860s. Following the UK general election of May 2015, developers will probably have a free hand. Funding for the arts might survive at elite levels, but previous cuts have already removed funding from many experimental arts organisations, especially the politicised ones. Some continue, using a spoof logo to advertise that they are not funded by the Arts Council. If there were two, parallel but entwined narratives of urban change through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of clearance and improvement (with art aligned to the latter as a way to improve behaviour), both aspects of liberalism, there is one now: decant the poor; tear it down and build anew; and make money. Government, meanwhile, with as far as I can see very little opposition from what began as the workers’ party, is intent on scrapping the Welfare State. This began with New Labour and public-private finance – the public sector puts in most cash and takes all the risk while the private sector cleans up the profit – and goes on with added velocity. Walls carry slogans like Jail the Bankers, but that won’t happen. If it did, they’d privatise the prisons and bring in gourmet food and rehabilitation in the Cayman Islands.
Is it over? Is the city of the post-crash era moving towards social divisions likely to become apocalyptic? Well … not quite. The police have gained experience in crowd control, and the new government has a mandate from about a quarter of the voters (a third of whom didn’t vote). But, outside the funding system (though still inside higher education in some cases), artists’ collectives are producing a new dissidence. Where they take arts funding they are prepared to bite the hand that feeds them. A lot of what they do does not cost much apart from time and ingenuity (which is not to say the individuals concerned do not need to earn a living). This is not public art or community arts. Nor is it, to use two of the inane phrases used in the 2000s, site-specific or art-in-a-social-setting. There are no sites of habitation outside a social setting; and much of what was presented a site-specific was site-general (another one of that artist’s works, over there). The new dissidence operates in gallery and non-gallery spaces, at biennales, on the internet … wherever. It is politicised. It challenges the status quo. Among the artists’ collectives producing it are Freee, Cornford+Cross, Park Fiction, HeHe, Liberate Tate, and the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home. I am relieved that they are there, and able to go on working. Examples of their work are cited in my book, Limits to Culture (2015). And there is also a strand running through the book, of which I became more conscious after finishing it, which is about the Welfare State. I am a child of that estate, born in Harlington Cottage Hospital in 1950, in what was then the three-year old NHS. I remember riding on the trolley-bus to Hounslow with my mother to collect the orange juice which was available to mothers and small children. I was educated free in state and grammar schools. I received a grant at art school (£405 for 1971-72, just enough to live on when bread and a pint of bitter were both about 10p). I have worked since 1972 in publicly funded higher education. When I go to the Festival Hall – I recognised it at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, too – I see luxury for all social classes, a democratic, benign culture on the path to that better world of which the modernists dreamed. I may still be one of them at heart. Whether that is so or not I bitterly resent the wrecking of the Welfare State; but I am grateful to those artists’ collectives whose work now constitutes a politicised, creative opposition. Now, please read the book.’
Malcolm Miles is Professor of Cultural Theory in the School of Architecture, Design and Environment at the University of Plymouth. He is the author of Urban Utopias: The Built and Social Architectures of Alternative Settlements (2008), Cities & Cultures (2007), Urban Avant-Gardes: Art, Architecture & Change (2004) and Art, Space & the City (1997). He is co-editor of the Routledge Critical Introductions to Urbanism series.
Limits to Culture: Urban Regeneration vs. Dissident Art is available to buy from Pluto Press here.