Opinion: London's creative classes are caught up in an urban renewal hamster wheel that's affecting property prices across the capital – and there's no way off without leaving the city entirely, says Will Wiles.
London is in danger of losing its creative class, warn Barber & Osgerby. Another expired canary to fling onto the cheerful yellow heap outside the coalmine that is the London property market – alongside Rohan Silva's urgent plea earlier this year that the capital's technology sector was threatened by the housing shortage, and a slew of Why I'm leaving London essays by journalists, artists and novelists.
The creative class is in an uncomfortable position in the broader, nationally important, story of London's property bubble and the housing crisis. For a start, it's difficult to work with an unwieldy concept like "the creative class".
At one end there are deeply indebted architecture graduates struggling through internships and sleeping on friends' floors. At the other, there's Norman Foster, who shrugged off the whole problem with the splendid "circle of life, sunrise, sunset" philosophical equilibrium that must come a little easier when you're on the Sunday Times Rich List.
And there are those who would find it hard to summon up any sympathy for the "creative class" in general given that it's mostly not at the truly sharp end of the housing crisis – for instance, struggling with the implications of the Bedroom Tax, or 15 to a room in an illegal "bed in a shed", or being evicted from a housing estate to make way for its demolition.
But "creatives" (I know, I know, that's even worse) have a unique and problematic status because of the governing urbanist ideology. They are mythologised as the tooth fairies of urban renewal, or perhaps its compost heap. Post-industrial leftovers are transmuted (indirectly) into gold. Leave a heap of dilapidated warehouses in a post-industrial corner of the city, inscrutable biological processes take over, and from the creative compost luxury flats and boutiques bloom.
This has been a noted pattern within urban life since, at least, bohemian Chelsea at the turn of the last century. It's a stately, pleasing succession in theory: easy to describe, profitable to harness, with the structured inevitability of a natural law. These qualities give rise to relaxed, big-picture takes like Foster's. It's just nature going about its business. And the natural end of the natural process? Modern Chelsea, perhaps: rich, expensive, an admixture of high culture, lovely if you have a lot of money, otherwise an empty space on the map.
It's tempting for the creative professions to try to get some special consideration out of these supposed properties: Let us stay or the city gets it. Keep our rents affordable or we'll be off, taking our house-price-boosting lustre with us. Then where will London be?
Well, it might well be rich, quiet and in places semi-deserted thanks to the investment properties of the global elite – a larger, chillier Monaco – and it's easy to imagine that might suit our present rulers rather nicely. Or its economy will decline, the rich will flit off in search of edgier climes (Berlin?), jobs will disappear and there'll be a lot of empty workspace for the creatives to move back in. Although that seems less likely. Either way, the threat in itself carries little force. It assumes the government cares about the creative industries and arts in themselves, and as Barber and Osgerby make clear, they don't.
With threats essentially powerless, what else can architects and designers do? Well, they can design, or attempt to come up with "creative" solutions to the problem. Unfortunately, most of these solutions are woeful. Take a look at New London Architecture's recent "ideas competition" addressing the housing crisis. It's not an edifying sight.
I don't want to single out any firms for particular criticism – not when the field is so crowded, and when I am sure that Dezeen's readers will immediately recognise the absurdly widespread tropes I'm about to mention. All I can do is call for an immediate ban on any project proposals involving either shipping containers or siting homes on London's open water. Penalty: all offending architects to spend a week in a shipping container floating on a Brent reservoir.
Unheated, unlit, unventilated, unplumbed, windowless and generally unpleasant – the shipping container is a horrible basis for housing. The American architect Mark Hogan has written an excellent analysis of some of its most important flaws, and I don't mean to recap that here. Not when we can compound our tetanus with Weil's Disease and take to the rivers, lakes and docks.
You can see where the waterborne solution comes from. Look at a map. Gosh, pretty crowded with buildings down there. Where can we build? Wait, what's all that open space coloured blue? Of course!
To target the water might feel like shrewd out-of-the-box thinking but the river, the reservoirs and the docks should really be considered parks. They are already molested enough, and face enough challenges to public access thanks to overdevelopment – we should not be adding to that.
To make a difference to the crisis as a whole, you'd need a grand fleet of floating houses, enough to logjam every gulp of water in the city. The one project along these lines to get anywhere is not in the least promising: a 15-acre slice of the Royal Docks yielding just 50 homes. Luxury homes, natch. Pull the plug.
Fundamentally, these answers all come down to workarounds for the crisis – what the tech sceptic Evgeny Morozov calls "solutionism", efforts to hack or circumvent a problem without actually solving it. In making an effort to boil down the conundrum of many people/not enough homes down to simple, easy-to grasp elements, designers hopelessly obfuscate it. It gets reduced to a question of packaging. You have an object (a person – nearly almost a single person) and they need an efficient container. No wonder they keep turning to the shipping container, it shows the level of the thinking. Mass-produced! Stackable! Inexpensive! Or they focus on the space needed to put their podules, and end up looking at rivers and lakes. The whole business is a matter of warehousing, you see, a three-dimensional topological problem, nothing more.
This is utterly, dangerously wrong. We have a very efficient way of packing a lot of small homes into a small footprint. It is called the tower block. Hell, the homes don't even have to be that small – the Parker-Morris space standards that governed council housing in the 20th century were more generous than many privately built flats now.
There's plenty of land, too. London is one of the most extensive cities in Europe. The problem is political, not architectural. And it's a tricky one for the policy-makers, too. Safely deflating a speculative bubble – and that is the problem underlying most of the others here – is no easy task. "The consequences of successful action seemed almost as terrible as the consequences of inaction," wrote the economist JK Galbraith on the intractable dilemma that faced regulators in the months preceding the great stock market crash of 1929. It comes down to deliberately engineering a collapse – with obviously unpalatable repercussions for those who do the engineering – and waiting for a more serious collapse down the line.
What else could be done, while we await the crash that is assuredly coming? Very little, I fear. This is the endpoint of the doctrine of urban regeneration. It ends up evicting the creative class who were supposed to be among its greatest beneficiaries, and a lot of other people besides.
Will Wiles is the author of two novels with architectural themes: Care of Wooden Floors, in which a man is driven mad by a minimalist apartment, and The Way Inn, a horror story set in an anonymous chain hotel. He is contributing editor at Icon magazine and a freelance design journalist.