Houman Barekat

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Me­an­der­ing Through Lon­don

The Lan­guage of Cities, Deyan Sud­jic, Allen Lane, July 2017, pp. 240, £9.99 (Pa­per­back)

One of sev­eral run­ning jokes in the pop­u­lar 1980s sit­com Only Fools & Horses in­volved the postal ad­dress of the two main char­ac­ters, Derek and Rod­ney Trot­ter. They lived in a block of coun­cil flats called Nel­son Man­dela House, and ev­ery time its name was men­tioned it got a big canned laugh. This was a play­ful dig at the now-de­funct Greater Lon­don Coun­cil which, along with much of the rest of the cap­i­tal’s mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment, was be­lieved to be in­fested with com­mu­nists. Man­dela was at this time re­garded by main­stream opin­ion as a ter­ror­ist, and his li­on­i­sa­tion among left-wingers as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the lat­ter’s ob­nox­ious con­trari­ness. These days there is scarcely any need for such barbs: the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum has shifted well to the right af­ter three decades of Thatcherite con­sen­sus, and to­day’s pro­gres­sive ac­tivism is for the most part a rear­guard ac­tion to pro­tect so­cial democ­racy against the rav­ages of fis­cal aus­ter­ity and the rise of the far right. There were echoes of that 1980s sec­tar­i­an­ism dur­ing the re­cent gen­eral elec­tion, when the BBC adorned a seg­ment on se­cu­rity pol­icy with a graphic un­ac­count­ably jux­ta­pos­ing an im­age of Osama Bin Laden with that of Jeremy Cor­byn; by and large, though, the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate is al­to­gether less po­larised than it once was.

Ur­ban plan­ning nonethe­less re­mains an im­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal is­sue, if only be­cause Lon­don’s chronic hous­ing prob­lem shines an un­flat­ter­ing light on its in­creas­ingly ine­gal­i­tar­ian so­cio-eco­nomic land­scape. The re­cent Gren­fell Tower dis­as­ter has greatly in­ten­si­fied that scru­tiny, not­with­stand­ing the in­cum­bent Tory gov­ern­ment’s in­sis­tence that it should not be ‘politi­cised’, what­ever that means. Look­ing back over the terms of the cap­i­tal’s pre­vi­ous two May­ors, Deyan Sud­jic notes a con­tra­dic­tion: the very forces that drive Lon­don’s pros­per­ity are also those that make it un­af­ford­able and

al­most un­live­able; and, what’s worse, how­ever per­verse it might sound, the pop­u­lace has a di­rect stake in the main­te­nance of this sta­tus quo. Sud­jic points out that ‘[n]obody [who voted for Ken Liv­ing­stone and Boris John­son] voted to have a hous­ing stock that was priced grotesquely be­yond the means of the ma­jor­ity of its cit­i­zens, although it is clear that most of its home­own­ers would not have been happy about any politi­cian try­ing to do any­thing that, as they would see it, might cause the value of their prop­er­ties to fall.’ Sud­jic, who is a di­rec­tor of the De­sign Mu­seum in Lon­don and has pub­lished widely on ar­chi­tec­ture, paints a pic­ture of a city shaped by the hap­haz­ard in­ter­play of mar­ket forces, ‘a mix­ture of ruth­less op­por­tunism, un­in­tended con­se­quences and po­lit­i­cal tur­moil.’

That sense of ran­dom­ness is epit­o­mised in the story of how Mal­colm McLean’s 40-foot steel ship­ping con­tain­ers trans­formed the phys­i­cal char­ac­ter of great swathes of East Lon­don by bring­ing about the clo­sure of ev­ery en­closed dock from Tower Bridge to North Wool­wich. A small tech­no­log­i­cal tweak ef­fec­tively wiped out a whole way of life, paving the way for the re­de­vel­op­ment of Ca­nary Wharf in its cur­rent it­er­a­tion. In a rel­a­tively short space of time, Lon­don re-styled it­self along the lines of a Dubai or Shang­hai, a vista of com­pet­ing sky­scrapers whose sym­bolic func­tion Sud­jic ex­plains by in­vok­ing the cult Kevin Cost­ner movie, Field of Dreams: ‘“Pay at­ten­tion” is the mes­sage of all those tow­ers. Build them and the bankers will come.’ Some­where along the way, this apo­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tism seems to have given way to out­right cyn­i­cism, and the hous­ing sit­u­a­tion is a ci­pher for the over­all struc­tural malaise. The Con­ser­va­tive Party’s pol­icy of deny­ing hous­ing ben­e­fit to fam­i­lies liv­ing in ar­eas deemed too ex­pen­sive is es­sen­tially, Sud­jic sug­gests, a kind of so­cial cleans­ing. He likens it to Walt Dis­ney’s nos­tal­gic-utopian ‘themed land’, Main Street USA, where Dis­ney had no­to­ri­ously pro­posed deal­ing with the is­sue of poverty by sim­ply evict­ing peo­ple who lose their jobs.‘[T]he ut­ter fail­ure to build ad­e­quate af­ford­able hous­ing,’ he writes, ‘has threat­ened the whole na­ture of what has made Lon­don at­tract the am­bi­tious, the gifted and the young from around the world.’

These flick­ers of pas­sion aside, The Lan­guage of Cities does not have a

great deal to say. For the most part the book is con­spic­u­ously di­rec­tion­less, an ag­glom­er­a­tion of ob­ser­va­tions and tid­bits pre­sented in a coolly equiv­o­cal tim­bre redo­lent of cook­books and Lonely Planet guides. That is not to say that it is en­tirely de­void of in­sight, of course. Sud­jic is a per­spi­ca­cious ob­server, and his med­i­ta­tions some­times of­fer food for thought. He en­cour­ages us to look be­yond pre­con­ceived def­i­ni­tions, to ex­am­ine the ac­tual state of things. He be­lieves, for ex­am­ple, that we ought to reimag­ine the ter­ri­to­rial lim­its of the city to in­cor­po­rate the com­muter belts into our map of the me­trop­o­lis: ‘Those vil­lages in Suf­folk that are close enough to a rail­way sta­tion to de­liver com­muters to Liver­pool Street in un­der 90 min­utes are ef­fec­tively as much a part of Lon­don as Croy­don or Eal­ing, and they have house prices to prove it.’ Else­where, he de­scribes the cor­po­rate tech be­he­moths that in­habit Sil­i­con Val­ley as ‘city states, with no demo­cratic pre­ten­sions.’ Its eery at­mos­phere is the prod­uct of ‘cross-fer­til­iza­tion be­tween utopian spec­u­la­tion, physics and math­e­mat­ics, and be­tween self-re­liant au­ton­omy and wealth cre­ation,’ cul­mi­nat­ing in ‘a mix of the utopian and the bru­tally un­sen­ti­men­tal.’ For all its eery mag­nif­i­cence, he fears the cur­rent tech­no­log­i­cal bub­ble might yet go the way of the Ko­dak em­pire, which van­ished al­most overnight when the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion hap­pened. A sense of ephemer­al­ity is im­ma­nent in its vast­ness, and Sud­jic notes that spend­ing time in Sil­i­con Val­ley leaves him with ‘a hunger for a more per­ma­nent form of city-build­ing, one the leaves the traces of lived live in it, and time pass­ing.’

Alas, he is not al­ways so thought-pro­vok­ing. The line be­tween a com­men­tary and a mere mus­ing is a fine one in­deed, and Sud­jic coasts through it with non­cha­lant com­pla­cency on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. He laments the re­duc­tion of Venice to ‘a glum pedes­trian cir­cuit’, and wor­ries that other cities might go the same way; he ob­serve that the ma­nia for dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy has col­lapsed the vis­i­ble dis­tinc­tion be­tween tourists and lo­cals in the en­vi­rons of ma­jor at­trac­tions, as both tourists and lo­cals alike are en­grossed in their iPhones; and ob­serves that the num­ber of peo­ple pass­ing through air­ports is grow­ing day by day. One can’t help won­der­ing if this is the kind of book that only gets pub­lished if the au­thor’s rep­u­ta­tion is al­ready well es­tab­lished, and can be re­lied upon to shift copies on its own; an emerg­ing writer prob­a­bly wouldn’t get away with such ba­nal

me­an­der­ing. The Lan­guage of Cities is re­plete with plat­i­tudi­nous nuggets of re­ceived wis­dom, de­liv­ered in a tim­bre of apho­ris­tic di­dac­ti­cism. We are told, for ex­am­ple, that ‘A suc­cess­ful city is one that makes room for sur­prises.’ There should not be ‘too much’ gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, but ‘too much rigid, state-owned so­cial hous­ing’ is also bad; we need ‘the spark that is es­sen­tial to mak­ing a city that works.’ ‘A suc­cess­ful city,’ more­over, ‘is an en­tity that is con­tin­u­ally re­con­fig­ur­ing it­self, chang­ing its so­cial struc­ture and mean­ing…’ It is hard to quib­ble with these tau­to­log­i­cally valid as­ser­tions; but it is hard to get ter­ri­bly ex­cited about them ei­ther.

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