Grace Allen writes about the allure of extravagant housing for the wealthy elite in contrast to the bleak reality of London’s private-dominated housing crisis
The newly built and controversial creation of a 25-metre-long swimming pool, 10 feet deep, and 35 metres in the air, between two elitist skyscrapers has been positioned in the heart of the Nine-Elms ‘Embassy Gardens’ housing complex in South-West London. The swimming pool is transparent, allowing the exclusive minority of residents’ access to this leisure activity, whilst observing from all angles the sheer explicitness of their economic privilege. Therefore, this swimming pool not only reflects the problems of affordable, social housing, but also reflects the prevalence of the cultural and economic capital of the marginal few who maintain a monopoly over leisure activities and spaces.
The physicality of urban spheres is a vital representative of cosmopolitanism, capitalism and modern imperial wealth. Emerging skyscrapers and high-rises since the 1960s have led to the territorialism of urban space, in which capitalist accumulation towers above us in the form of modern, architecturally uncannily perfect skylines.
The £15 billion Nine-Elms development project is the largest housing project in Europe. It planned to include 54,000 new homes, the majority costing over £1 million each, including the redevelopment of grade-two listed Battersea Power Station.
3,444 new homes were planned to be built in the station, in which 16% of these will be listed as ‘affordable housing’. However, this includes intermediate rent properties which are pitched at 80% of market rates and require a family income of at least £38,000 a year.
The hard egotism and barbaric indifference of corporate skylines, situated locally amongst impoverished populations at the forefront of housing crisis, harshly exposes the restructured political and economic spheres in our cities today. Within the same area as the Nine-Elms development, 2,258 people in 2019 used the Vauxhall Foodbank, and in 2018, there were 320,000 people in the neighbouring borough of Lambeth without permanent housing. Yet despite this, capitalist greed attaches the label of ‘affordable’ to a small percentage of flats, allowing these elites access into and control of urban space and housing costs.
The Nine-Elms development reflects the profit-driven interests of corporate elites in its ostentatious architecture features. The rooftop area provides Embassy Gardens residents with exclusive access to a bar, spa and greenhouse. The politics of urban environments and populations have meant that urban space, and therefore housing, have become functions of commodity.
Newly built, architecturally flaunted high-rises provide occupiers a safe distance from the poorer masses below, and the modernised skyline symbolises the features of a new metropolis, produced and reinforced by cities having become the pinnacle of mass globalisation and capitalist development.
This swimming pool in the Embassy Gardens was built in Colorado, sent to Texas, followed by a three-week-long journey across the Atlantic to the UK. The pool towers above the experiential problem of the housing crisis within the UK, especially London, where the homelessness charity Streets of London estimated that more than 10,000 people sleep rough in London each year, and according to Shelter, more than 280,000 people in England in 2019 were homeless – this statistic mostly expressing the horrifying numbers of those experiencing hidden homelessness.
Just a few miles down the Thames, the epitome of urban cosmopolitanism can be reflected in The Shard, a 310-meter-tall skyscraper in London, the tallest building in the EU. According to the architect, Renzo Piano, The Shard consists of “a vertical city”, with luxury shops, a hotel, offices, apartments and observation decks.
Despite cities being vital drivers of the global economy, the pure scale of capitalism within cities are fundamental for inequality and injustice. The territoriality of urban design in cities is significant for the production and re-structuring of urban landscapes, where space for socially just politics is neglected as corporate capital and the state construct an urban image based on the foundations of a modern capitalist economy. The dominance of elite foreign investors and property buyers in the urban landscape stand in the midst of regional urban irony where the worsening social problems of poverty, inequality and homelessness are pushed aside.
Glamorous, modern, city silhouettes of consumption, investment, and economic gloat heighten the disparities of the lives of communities living in the most deprived neighbourhoods – especially in social sector high-rise tower blocks and estates. Recent decades have witnessed the steady incline in the private housing sector, where tall buildings are advocated as necessary for urban competition, contrasted with the decline and removal of social housing at a time when it is most needed.
High-rise flats and tall buildings were part of the projection of a 21st century cityscape, which formed the fundamental foundations of a social-democratic, utopian metropolis. The house-building boom was enhanced by the Conservative Government in 1951, where emphasis shifted at the end of the decade towards slum clearances as millions were lifted from rundown and cramped inner-city terraces and re-housed in purpose built high-rise blocks and new towns.
Glasgow’s revolutionary high-rise housing production in the 1960s, which became the lead influence of Britain’s and Western Europe’s tower-block metropolis. Between 1961 and 1968, high-rise flats accounted for three quarters of Glashow’s annual housing production, being three times that of London and eighteen times that of Birmingham. Large housing estates and tower blocks were the product of idealistic image and futuristic expectations following a post-war transformation of urban life.
We can witness this estrangement between the visualities of housing and the cultural contexts and their attached meanings. Over time, tower blocks and social housing estates became afflicted with a ‘image problem’, forming the front face of deprivation and poverty, heightening the indifference of wealth distribution in urban settings.
The allocation of working-class citizens to areas with poor housing, through policy procedures such as The Housing Act (1996) has resulted in an intensified structure of social exclusion through the processes of segregation, leading to the least advantaged being placed in the most deprived areas. The proliferation of modern high-rises, such as those either side of the exclusive swimming pool in Embassy Gardens, explicitly express the spatialised segregation.
This is problem is, of course, not wholly new, Friedrich Engels remarked in 1845 that, in England, “poverty often dwells in hidden alleys close to the palaces of the rich; but, in general, a separate territory has been assigned to it… removed from the sight of the happier classes…. Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which crowd their city”.
Under the Thatcher governments, the Right to Buy scheme was strongly enforced, having previously been introduced in 1952, to allow council tenants the opportunity to buy the homes they were living in at a generous discount. 7,000 council houses sold in 1970, in which this number grew drastically to nearly 46,000 in 1972. Between 1952 and 1980 in England and Wales, 370,000 public sector dwellings were sold, a third of these being in 1979 and 1980.
The Right to Buy scheme led to a diminished number of council-owned properties for the social sector. The remainder of council housing had become the last resort for those left behind due to the scheme, as families on ‘middle’ incomes sold their properties and moved out, resulting in the indirect spatial segregation of the lower classes.
As little to no funding is made available for the production of new council housing, the Right to Buy legislation continues to transform social housing into a private enterprise. Socio-economic disparities have been accelerated as a result, leading to the increase in council house demand compared with its availability, placing heightened pressure on the economically marginalised to rely on dodgy, profiteering, private landlords, often exacerbating the risk of homelessness.
Today’s housing crises expresses the surge and desire for private property, such as luxury flats purchased by the top 5%. The existence of a glamourous 35-metre-high transparent swimming pool in the midst of a £15 billion housing development explicitly reflects the economic and social exclusionary intentions of the bourgeoisie to reinforce cultural and economic exclusion, and continue to literally lift corporate elites up and away from the realities of capitalism and the stark existence of poverty and inequality beneath them.
Our cities are not only home to the breeding ground of capital and greed, but are also spaces of authoritarianism; through the ownership of space on the premise of architectural status and profits at the dismissal of genuine social housing.
Grace Allen, is a member of the YCL’s West and North Yorkshire and London branches
Engels, F. 1845. ‘The Great Towns’. The Condition of the Working Class in England. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/condition-working-class/ch04.htm
Appert, M and Montes, C. 2015. Skyscrapers and the redrawing of the London Skyline: a case of territorialisation through landscape control. Journal of Urban Research. Volume 7, pp.1-24