articles

Bloomsbury Olympic

By Richard B, 24 April 2012
Image: All photographs by Rose-Anne Gush

As the 2012 London Olympics looms, construction and education – two poles of an economy of despair – are to meet in East London. Richard B draws out the unlikely connections in-the-making between Bloomsbury and Stratford

 

It is Spring 2012. The party socialists in the Bloomsbury student movement walk out of their classrooms to protest against the reforms to Higher Education, parading through the streets as if each thump on a paving stone will bring the world a little closer to political ignition. A year and a half ago, this was indeed the motion that articulated so successfully the collective, national rage against the current administration’s policies towards land, labour and capital. Since then, today’s student movement, in Bloomsbury and beyond, has drifted up and down. It still remains more organised and vibrant than its generational precursors have been for perhaps a decade in the UK and the active forms of co-operation between student and trade union activists are equally novel. Yet, in the face of continued, unrelenting government legislation, the movement pauses. The march is directed at the Minister for Universities, David Willets, but it seems impossible to imagine how it could move beyond accusation and into real antagonism.

 

The move beyond current coordinates is often deemed, in pseudo-management talk, as the key strategic aims of a campaign: with solidarity, with a ‘linking up’ how could we ever be stopped? Resistance, aggregating under the working title of convenience (‘anti-cuts’) comprised itself of students, proletarians and other fiscal underdogs, and proclaimed in all its self-congratulatory stellar immensity the necessity of solidarity. Surely if we had joined-up better, like rats biting each-others’ tails, we would have mobbed into a mass with no diminishment of momentum? Thus far, ironically, it is the lofty institutions themselves which have been far more feverish and clandestine in expanding outwards into the working class communities from which the student movement was restricted, dominated as it was, in 2010 at least, by cadres from the Russell Group universities.

 

For while the student movement may have understandably stalled in the face of the onslaught of the fastest transfer of economic governance from nation state to private corporation in the history of our beleaguered welfare state, the university movement has far from subsided. Perhaps, however, we can ride its waves.

 

Over the past two years in the UK, two sectors of capital production have been central to the political arguments for particular strategies of economic reorganisation: education and construction. Education in the banalised, bastardised vehicle of the Higher Education sector, one which became the centrifuge of both policy and resistance; construction in the bizarre world of the Olympics. The site in Stratford is now the largest construction site in Europe, at a time when new construction projects across the UK as a whole are at the lowest rate of commission since 1980. These two sectors are about to collide with University College London’s (UCL) declared intention to construct a new campus in Stratford, on the site currently occupied by a 1960s housing estate.i In the boulevards of Bloomsbury, the potentialities of post-Olympic capital dribble from the colonnades; in Stratford, the soft filtrations of UCL’s nanotechnologies trickle into the already toxic marshland.

 

Carpenters Estate

 

Carpenters Estate is known for being the largest housing estate standing adjacent to the Olympic Park. At one end, the High Road, broad and empty, strung with dim colour-changing lights, heralds the mix of inflated glass phalloi, surviving workers’ cafés and stocky private housing with fragmented coloured surfaces which presently characterise Stratford. At the other end of the estate, a strange road blockade formed out of Olympic signs and wire mesh barriers announces the concealed entrance to the sacred Olympic Park itself: ‘Demolish. Dig. Design’ proclaims the multi-coloured plastic hoarding. Reflected in the luminescent cyan are the words of a discarded sign, spelling out in reverse ‘We Buy Gold’. On the other side of the gate loom the Olympic stadia.

 

Image: All photographs by Rose-Anne Gush

 

There are three large tower blocks on Carpenters Estate, designed by Thomas North and Kenneth Lund, the West Ham Borough architects through the 1960s. Each 22 storey block stands watch over rows of two and three-storey low rises, which exemplify a range of ’60s to ’80s council architecture. The towers themselves are built around a central core of pokey corridors, while the outer skin is dominated by windows and black cladding reminiscent of the pioneering Ravenscroft Estate in Canning Town. Each tower rests on large, pastel-coloured concrete trapezoid feet, though at James Riley point, instead of a Le Corbusier-style flow of air beneath the block, the spaces below have been gated up to fence in a myriad of large vacant waste bins.

 

All three blocks are nearing the end of a ‘decanting’ process. It’s a familiar story which has already played itself out countless times, notably at the Heygate Estate in Southwark. The lack of proper maintenance suffered by the buildings from the moment construction ended is used by the council as a reason for development, promising riches for the council and impoverishment for the residents.

 

It’s worthwhile understanding how the destruction of these blocks is built into the history of their fabric. The old Worshipful Company of Carpenters purchased land in Stratford and West Ham, and in the 19th century turned it from fields for pasture into those for industrial production, leasing it out for the manufacture of bricks, matches and linen. As the railways criss-crossing the marshes needed land from the Carpenters’ Company, transformed through South-Sea bubble and colonial necessity into a financially secure apparatchik club, was awarded handsome compensation by the state in lieu of market prices.ii Gifted these cash sums, the Company invested in supporting technical education at Imperial University, King’s College London and UCL, as well as the founding of a building crafts college on the site itself. Factories and houses rose up side by side along the River Lea. Both thus suffered the mass bombing of WWII which scattered its way up the valley.iii

 

 

In the 1950s, the Carpenters Estate lay as part-ruin, part-rubble, with houses interspersed amongst the detritus. West Ham Council had 8,000 people on its waiting list for housing every year. Faced with this seemingly impossibly task of provision, the council began a program of erecting not only modernist housing estates, but cheap high rises fashioned from pre-fabricated concrete slabs. West Ham bought the Carpenters’ land through compulsory purchase order in 1965 and the three towers – Dennison, James Riley and Lund points – were finished by 1968.iv

 

Across East London, similar towers rose from the dust of history. From ’68 onwards, it is a history of decay. In that year, as the Carpenters buildings were finished, the latest of West Ham’s housing solutions revealed catastrophic cost-cutting. Ronan Point, a 200ft tower in Canning Town also designed by Thomas North, partially collapsed when a ground floor flat exploded from a gas leak. Every living room on the corner of the building, from base to top, cascaded downwards.

 

While damp and subsidence have caused cracks and peeling in the Carpenters towers, they remain structurally sound. Lacking such a material justification that could be leveled by council authorities in response to residents’ enquiries, the estate has of course become host to bourgeois conspiracies that the buildings must be infected with the social disease named anti-social behaviour, or simply ‘decline’. At the Royal Institute of British Architect’s current exhibition, ‘A Place to Call Home’, the buildings purported to have contributed to the ‘aspirational’ shift in the 1970s were Ronan Point and the Broadwater Farm Estate. While the former represents a physical disaster, the latter is a social disaster. Given that the Broadwater Farm riots, stoked by a racist police force more than inadequate architectural design, did not happen until 1985, the implication can only be that this was a disaster inscribed into the mortar of the dwellings, waiting to burst out.

 

 

This attitude is no doubt helped by the desultory data provided from the national census, which records the Stratford Estate as one of the economically poorest areas in the country. Such statistics themselves, however, are unnecessary for any bureaucrat wanting to draw the useful conclusion that the estate is beyond repair, his mind dominated by the threat society perceives in itself, never mind that the real threat is quite clearly in the deleterious balance sheets of local government. And never mind, too, that residents who have lived on other estates speak highly of the lack of fear and violence at Carpenters.

 

Typically, despite the protestations of the Carpenters community, now in its third generation, James Riley Point was deemed unable to be repaired at reasonable cost in 2004, and has been slowly emptied out since. The other two blocks were marked for termination soon after, each announcement accompanied by the term ‘regeneration’, and carrying with it the appropriate subtext of class spite. Two thirds of the estate now lies empty.

 

What makes the Carpenters community cohere, in all its Bengali-Turkish-Polish-aging-Cockney splendour, and in spite of their dwindling numbers, are the shared amenities. There is a primary school on the site, comprising a large set of low and squat pre-fab buildings, stretching out between the blocks. The school will be closed during the Olympics themselves, but the staff still believe their future is assured. The school supported the Newham and West Ham bid for the Olympic site, seeing the games, at least in its official output, as no threat at all. At the estate pub (the Carpenters Arms) the workers are far less certain. The pub managers are hopeful that Olympics will bring more business along the new lane bisecting the estate, leading from the A road to the Olympic Park.

 

Indeed, despite the busy roads nearby and the roaring Westfield shopping centre just on the other side of the station, I seem to see less people on the estate each time I walk round it. Quietness holds it, cranes watch over it. On one occasion, I caught up with some students on a spliff break in the park. They were attending a ten-week course in basic construction and maintenance at the Building Crafts College next to the estate. The courses are usually funded by local housing associations, institutions which form a central part of the post-Olympic unaffordable homes bonanza. One of the students said he was hoping to get a job at the red tower on the horizon, Anish Kapoor’s corporate sponsored sculpture-building, the helter-skelter ‘something else’ which looms through the mist. He told me how he had a friend who used to live in the Dennison Point behind us, but he and his family had been moved to another council house in Abbey Lane. Other friends had been moved as far as Barking.

 

This is the next step of the managed decline: breaking up communities and peppering residents through the environs. The London Plan for the Olympics set a target of one half of all new development used for affordable housing.v Of the 11 new blocks currently curtaining off the Carpenters Estate from the rest of the world, about one third are ‘affordable’. In an interview with the BBC, the comedically villainous Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, can be heard assuring his constituents that this managed decline is not so bad; that the former residents of the estate will be rehoused or offered loans with which to buy new homes. Faced, effectively, with the accusation of actively impoverishing his electors, the Mayor retorts that there is no impoverishment, there’s just huge bundles of good, wholesome debt waiting for them whenever they ask. So much for the lessons of sub-prime. Already, most of the houses on the Carpenters Estate are privately owned by indebted beneficiaries of the 1980s Right-to-Buy scheme. Those being decanted from the three tower blocks are being encouraged to move into the brand new Genesis Housing Association development opposite the estate, a move with which they also rescind their right to secure tenancies.

 

 

As if the throes of privatisation were not enough, the fraction of the newly built Olympic village which Newham will be offered as council-owned housing stock is to be well used in the Realpolitik of class war. Earlier this month, the sickly Mayor revealed proposals for prioritising the allocation of the 348 new houses to ‘hard-working’ families and soldiers, in a patent continuation of forced labour: work or die, the administration sharply drones. Those who have had the good fortune to retire before they die are being hurried out of their too-costly state provided flats and into the private market.

 

But we can go further than lamenting the unfair infringement on the rights of proletarians to continue a specific form of life. Instead, we can see in the processes of the Olympics the effect of a high-capital growth project on a section of the working class already mutating through another, parallel process of class decomposition. Capital and class move together. Newham proletarians out, Bloomsbury capital in.

 

Olympic-Bloomsbury

 

University College London announced last year that, as part of its beautified Masterplan, it intends to construct a bright new campus in Stratford. The 20 hectare site it proclaims ripe for this illustrious moment is of course the Carpenters Estate. A quick walk around the site makes clear that the only option for such a project, given the specific geography, would be the total destruction of the housing estate and its amenities. The Mayor of Newham, again with the perfect, honest prowess which only his class of quangocrats can deliver, laudates:

 

With leading educational institutions already firmly established in the area, another university would inspire Newham youngsters to look at the wider opportunities available to them. As well as presenting employment opportunities, a new campus will provide a significant boost to the local economy and provide a lasting legacy for the community.

 

Read: ‘The young people of East London may look upon the heights of UCL with pleasure, and dream that they too, one far off day, could achieve its greatness. But until then they can have the even greater pleasure of employment in the university.’

 

The Mayor deftly replaces opportunity to aspire with opportunity to survive – ambition for subsistence. Stratford is actually already well covered, if not saturated, with educational institutions. Queen Mary’s university is only a quick bus ride away, the Building Crafts College maintains specialist as well as foundation courses, and just on the other side of the depleting old shopping centre is the original branch of the University of East London (UEL). Birkbeck University, also based in Bloomsbury, shares resources with UEL in this first Stratford building, and the two institutions are engaged in a new campus (blandly branded ‘University Square’) to piggy-back on the Newham building mania. But the hopes for a lasting legacy in the economy (and not just its whimpering cousin, the job market) will be the in-and-out flow of students from UCL, while East Londoners can make do with the service provision of the other institutions on their doorstep. Anywhere except the precious Russell Group spires.

 

Indeed, where UCL is granted laurels and stooping, the class basis of UEL students earns the full wrath of the Olympic storm. UEL housed many students at the Clays Lane housing estate, once the largest purpose-built housing co-operative in the UK, erected proudly by the National Building Agency. Clays Lane was bought and demolished in 2007 to make way for the presentation of the Olympic site to prospective developers as a symbol of the area as a whole. In other words, students and families were forced out of their homes in order to show off a pristine lot begging for ballparks and tennis courts. It was left as this manufactured wasteland for two years.

 

The provost of UCL, Malcolm Grant has insisted with the usual excess of management soft talk that Carpenters residents have been consulted (i.e. patronised) and their views listened to (i.e. safely contained). Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans (CARP) have witnessed the council and UCL conspiring to push ahead with development of the site despite their protestations in the sham public meetings, for which security guards were hired to discourage dissenting voices.

 

More recently, the residents have hit out against the capitalising efforts of the local council, who have signed a deal with the BBC allowing the top five floors of one of the supposedly crumbling tower blocks to be used for broadcasting during the Olympics itself. In this, the council is far from double-speak: it is in fact remarkably consistent. The tenants cannot be bled for the kind of capital which the Olympics provide, so they must be jettisoned. The Olympics must be welcomed in, first from the top of the tower blocks, their height providing the one last function in the new towering behemoths of Stratford Corp, until the dynamite can be placed at their base and the swaggering shapes of UCL can rise from the debris. Even the BBC understand this logic perfectly: they have indicated that while in residence in the top five floors of the block, they will be subletting some of the rooms to international media pundits.

 

 

There is another way in which the deterioration of the blocks, and the parallels with the Heygate Estate in this manner, has not gone unnoticed by the culture industry. Both blocks, in their advantageously abandoned states, were used as filming locations for the horror-comedy Attack the Block. The film brings together gang theory and alien invasion, narrating the real and slapstick violence of a group of residents on a London housing estate as they battle against a ferocious alien invasion which seems attacking only their housing block. In the film, the police are eaten by the invading beasts quite early on; this is a world without state protection or intervention (not that any tears are shed for the local enforcement). Nonetheless, this demarcates quite clearly the lines of aggression which ground the film: it isn’t a state actor which is being satirised as the invading force, but a class one. The heroic defenders of the block are mainly black: the aliens represent the gentrifying terror of white bourgeois London, tearing at the fabric of their environment, threatening their lives.

 

The culture industry, of course, sees the impoverishment they themselves are causing through the banality of bourgeois neutrality, and respond with what is – despite its comedic violence – really a nostalgic sob story about friendship and homeliness. And then, the film’s profits rolling in, the same class smells the last few drops of capital which can be eked out from the top five floors of a block ready for termination – its friendly, homely community included – and springs on the kill.

 

Bloomsbury, Olympic

 

The culture industry, thriving on the output of the emptied estates, is well integrated into the capital, as well as social, mesh of Bloomsbury, Olympic. Russell Square, this Summer, is media hub. Specially provided buses will ferry journos to and fro from tube stations; a special tube line will move them in their thousands from Kings Cross station to Stratford; from the elegant squares of Bentham and Keynes, over to the depleted (but surely well hidden) empty expanses which lie heavily between the Carpenters Estate blocks; from fete to fate. The Camden Council enactment of their 2007 ‘strategic vision’ amount in toto to the second Hausmannisation of Bloomsbury, the processes of 19th century resurfacing. It is of little wonder then that Russell Square is to be fenced off, so that access to the universities can only be made from the North; that the whole of Malet Street, running down the West border of the campus, will be taken up by VIP lanes for media transport.

 

This also fits in with UCL’s strategies to continue its upwards capital trajectory. It is quite clear to anyone even glancing up at the dazzling plate glass of Nido blocks that student housing blocks are now built as vehicles for this seasonal hotel industry. The student population and infrastructure of the modern university can also be put to use in the name of the Olympic spectacle. Bloomsbury, central and well furnished with upmarket cafés and fast food joints, plentiful hotel rooms and luxurious penthouses, situates itself in the out-of-term market as a perfect area for conferences and temporary accommodation. All those student blocks, so well funded and maintained by the university, are being given over throughout Summer 2012 to the hordes of paparazzi and broadcasters covering the season’s activities, replete with its battalions of advertising technologies and souped-up multimedia stardust.

 

The methods of development by which Bloomsbury has been built up and repurposed in recent years visits itself back on the structures of Stratford, but in reverse. The student blocks are not erected to one day be hotels, but the hotels to one day be student blocks. The interchangeability of students and tourists, both now firmly wedged into the class of the nomadic moneyed consumer in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, can be counted on as a vital element of the metropolis and its architecture. The corporate and university forms approach each other ever more closely; the hotel and the student housing block blur as much as the academic and corporate conference – and the shell mutates the organism.

 

Not being able to build up, and limited in the extent to which they can burrow down, the universities have opted for two other remaining options: the recapitalisation of housing described above, re-mechanisation, and colonisation.

 

Machines

 

UCL clearly represents the kind of university which the 1960s USA student movement declared a collaborator in the ‘military-industrial complex’. Wealth creation from biomedical sciences is becoming a priority for UCL and its sister organisation, UCL Partners. Malcolm Grant (UCL’s President and Provost) has been named Deteriorator-in-Chief of the NHS, overseer of the national project of biomed growth, and the creation of the ‘London-Cambridge pharma-corridor’ as a government report enthuses. The Systems Engineering Department boasts of its links with Ultra Electronics and BAE Systems, and offers an MSc module in ‘defence systems’. This runs in parallel with the Department of Space and Climate Physics, incorporating the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, which has been central to the UK’s satellite programme for over 40 years.

 

It is around such projects as these, eloquently mollified under the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) that university policy has been nurtured through the crisis. The Carpenters’ Company of the 19th century gave its money to UCL for technical education, naively believing it to be a place where craft and masonry could be propagated. The technologies of the modern university spin bio-chemical and petro-military armaments into the world, not ogies and rib vaults.

 

Meanwhile, waste labour (the unemployed and all the forms of ‘bad labour’ that creates) is converted into the basic ground for regeneration, and thus supports the dreams of the financiers backing the wasteland projects. The recent King’s Cross and Euston developments are showing what happens when you continue to gentrify a neighbourhood beyond the point where gentrification could have already been said to have occurred. UCL’s problem is not how to simply increase its class standing but, to borrow Bordiga’s phrasing, how to suck more young blood from the dead labour within it. The administrators of Bloomsbury’s crisis management are responsible not only for the riches of their masonry, but also the impoverishment of London’s workforce. The 50,000 security guards who will cover London this Summer will all be employed through the technics of sub-contraction, a mode of employment which UCL is determinedly rolling out across its estates. University College London sees the unemployed and envisions an army of coffee workers, security guards and cleaners – God forbid, even teachers – to service its high-end consumer market.

 

 

Colonies

 

Bloomsbury knows that it will always need its laborious base and a working class to service it; but it knows too that it can move into that class and reform it in the image of its own capital composition: repackaged, refinanced, privatised – but only so long as a new working class is found to serve it. So the question remains: for Bloomsbury to grow, it must exploit. It has no option but the imposition of technology and forced relocation. Those currently relocated by the Olympic neopolis include the Clays Lane Estate, as well as the residents of Newham’s statutory traveller sites.

 

Adjacent to Newham, the Hackney marshes have been trespassed by the heaving curves of the Media Centre, one of the most fought over toys of the regeneration frenzy. The main competitor for the kitted out village is the Rothschild backed iCity, aiming to be a corridor of pumping techno-fizzle stretching out across the marshes. With promises of mass-scale educational partnerships, the glittering website is like a hundred other Olympic visions: warm sunrises over glass towers, and swarming digitised figurines playing joyfully between elephantine screens and retail palaces. We know the glass towers of the Olympic visions well; and the interiors they hide. In such utopias, there are critical realities which are divorced from the mind. Utopia, with all its glass panelling, is already present – it bounces off the students of Bloomsbury, reflecting their image as they glide through its sweep. But one glance away from the mirrors and the alienating truths stare back: the labour that breathes underground, in the maintenance sheds and engineering laboratories.

 

The question remains however, that once Stratford has been mechanised, where will the automated, impoverished residents live? The answer of course is further out of London: to Leyton and Walthamstow, Croydon, Mitcham and Thornton Heath. But these are the very areas where, following the mass criminality of August 2011, business and development finance is being bolstered next. This is to be calibrated under the aegis of Sir Stuart Lipton, one time chairman of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), the vanguard of PFI aesthetics and skyline recompostition, who was forced to resign after it was revealed that he was essentially giving government design awards to buildings he had himself financed; and Julian Metcalfe, founder of Pret, the manicured hand of McDonald’s desperate grasp over every high street and concurrent forms of bad labour. As East Londoners are chased further towards exurbia, the developers follow suit.

 

The situation in East London then, for all its glorification of renewal and – the industrialist salivating into his calcifying spreadsheets – growth, is the result of two kinds of waste colliding: wastelands and waste labour. On the one hand, waste land repackaged and sold as a new product. Artificially manoeuvred into a new price band by the very fact that the radioactive detritus can be safely ignored by developers managing the otherwise celestial habitations of future citizens, the marshlands now present a tidy profit. On the other, the forms of bad labour enacted by the current mechanisms of global capital, with Bloomsbury as one of its most pristine axes.

 

The Olympic site will, of course, deteriorate. Beneath the buildings, marketed as a new utopia, the accumulated dead labour will be killed off yet again so that more living labour can be sucked from the working classes which will be pulled in from exurbia to service it. The radioactive dust distributed through the soil will become more and more radioactive until, a thousand years hence, its effects will finally start to show and – social turn-arounds notwithstanding – capital will find a mechanism of extracting value from the waste and disaster which entails.

 

 

 

Richard B <richardb AT riseup.net> lives in London and organises with Bloomsbury Fightback!

 

Footnotes

 

i ‘UCL looks east towards Newham for additional university campus’, http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1111/11112...

ii The financial revolution of the 18th century forced land owning corporations, including the guilds and livery companies, to turn their assets into security for the new technologies of financial instruments. This not only had the effect of shifting their focus away from employment control and into asset management, but also into some of the foundational sources of cash flow for the expanding global aspirations of the nation state.

iii An unexploded bomb was still waiting at Sugar Hill Lane just down the road, when it was unearthed a few years ago. Another was found on Leyton marshes the other day.

iv The area of Ham, situated between the Thames, the Lea and the surrounding marshes, has been through numerous reallocations of administration and nomenclature. At the end of the 19th century it divided into the Essex county boroughs of East and West Ham, but in 1965 the two were incorporated into the new London Borough of Newham. Carbuncular and marginal, it fell outside of the London County Council remit and instead the council housing was overseen by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MOHLG) Development Group, as well as the Newham Council Planning and Architecture division.

v ‘Affordable housing’, of course, falls victim to the usual government double speak, in which affordable denotes the ability for the members of the most admired social strata (the ‘middle’ class) to devote oblational mortgages at the domestic altar, while those on the lowest wages must be content with the sub-layer titled ‘social housing’ constructed by those same rentier boddhisatvas. The irony is that society is invoked to entirely conceal the obliteration of social magnanimity this trophic economising entails. See http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/regener... and http://www.communities.gov.uk/housing/housingresea...