New Developments in London: Selling More Than Buildings? by Stefanie Lai

Coming from Hong Kong, advertising and publicity for property developments generically emphasizes the quality and luxuriousness of their buildings. However in London lately I have observed some hoardings and billboards that are a little left-field. In the past year I have collected a number of photos that are amusing, thought-provoking or even disturbing.

photo 1

The ‘White Collar Factory’ being built just off Silicone Roundabout at Old Street conjures Orwellian nightmare images of young men in beards, skinny trousers and narrow ties sitting at rows of desks in an open-plan office.

photo 2

Located on Bishopsgate between Liverpool Street Station and Shoreditch High Street, the entire hoarding reads ‘The Un-Square Mile’, referencing both the expansion of the City, and the hip-ness of Shoreditch, which is just around the corner. The idea that a building can be creative and flexible is again buying into the trend for open-plan working and other flexible strategies such as hot-desking and sharing works spaces.

photo 3

The design and name of Spark Apartments on New Cross Road suggests affordability and ‘budget’, which makes sense in the current debates around the lack of affordable housing London, and criticism that new developments target rich investors and price out new property owners. However, it may be step too far to visually associate what will be the single most expensive purchase most people will make with toys, plastic, bright colours and mass-production.

photo 5

The blurb reads: ‘The Crown Estate and Oxford Properties are reinstating St James’s Market as a defining part of the area. With over 280,000 square feet of office, shops and restaurants centred around a new public square, soon global businesses and flagship retail will begin to define this part of St James’.

This is perhaps the most generic of developers’ messages in this review, making no pretence that the development is targeted at the most affluent businesses and individuals. It is regrettable however that the mention of a ‘public square’ immediately raises questions about how public this will truly be. And while Piccadilly Circus and Regent’s Street have already been colonised completely by global brands and chain stores, it is sad to think that this development that claims to be a ‘defining part of the area’ will house stores that already exist in one iteration or the other elsewhere , representing another nail in the coffin of high streets that are becoming increasingly homogenous, and a Central London that only caters to tourists and well-heeled locals.

It is unsurprising that developers are trying to adopt and use the language of societal trend and issues. However I find it disturbing that seemingly innocent advertising so squarely puts its finger on and seeks to profit from issues that are damaging to our society.

The type of work alluded to in the first two pictures might often be thought of as ‘bullshit jobs’i—work that is perceived as ultimately pointless in a wider context, most notably roles in consultancy services where neither concrete goods are produced nor are services provided seen as benefitting people or society. There is also research that open plan offices, far from encouraging communication and collaborative working, were actually negatively impacting creativity, productivity and satisfactionii. Flexible work also means freelancing and zero-hour contracts, which leaves workers with very little protection or stability.

High property prices make both the residents and businesses in London more generic as increasing numbers of people and businesses are priced out.

If property developers are able to put a positive spin on these messages, making them seem like everyday facts of life that one might be able to make a profit from, then they are not just changing the city’s physical environment, they are also changing the way that we perceive and think about spaces and issues in the city.

Stefanie Lai is currently a student in the MA World Cities and Urban Life. She has lived in Hong Kong and London, is interested in mobilities, especially cycling and walking in the city, and has recently been experimenting with photography. steflaihk@gmail.com

i ‘On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs’, http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/

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