The driving force of the corporate property frenzy disfiguring our cities is profit, but big money and big ego are close relatives. I had a really interesting chat today with a bloke who lives on the estate where I work. He’s a musicologist (part of the genuine social diversity of council estates) and was talking about the plans, being spearheaded by Simon Rattle, to build a new concert hall in London. According to my friend, who knows his octaves, the plan is ‘bollocks’. It will suck-in millions of pounds, much of it sure to be public money and probably use public land to build a ‘landmark’, ‘showcase’, ‘world class facility’…you can write the PR bullshit now! But my mate says there’s no genuine musical or artistic case for doing this. He says similar grand designs have faltered in other places, with the usual story of budget and timetable over-runs. While money is being poured into elitist vanity projects, facilities and opportunities for the arts at local level or for young people, are starved. The kind of cultural activities that can actually make a lasting difference to people’s lives and communities are neglected so Simon Rattle (who apparently once had a reputation for nurturing grass-roots participation) can wave his baton in a fancy new hall.
Heard it all before? Of course: the sporting equivalent is the Olympics, but last week I was in Birmingham where they’ve just opened a new library to replace the one (much-loved by many locals) condemned for being ‘Modernist’ – exactly the same trumped-up charge leveled at lots of council estates. I had a quick stroll round the new Library of Birmingham and as with any new building bigger than a phone box these days, there’s lots of coffee on sale. What they forgot (and again, it’s a problem experienced elsewhere) is to make sure there were enough books! They’re currently asking people to donate them. I had an insight into some of the delusions of grandeur informing Brum’s redevelopment a few years ago when I interviewed the leader of the Council and he started talking about modelling the city on Bruges! He even said it in a French accent! A more serious example of how the promoters of expensive new buildings forget their purpose is the new London Hospital at Whitechapel, built under the hugely expensive for us and hugely profitable for the developer, PFI scheme where since it opened, two floors of beds have been closed due to lack of money.
Over the years I’ve met several people involved in the property machine – developers, planners and politicians – who’ve shared a sense of their own importance as visionary shapers of the urban landscape. I remember one, whose company are leading the redevelopment of Kings Cross, who also waxed lyrical about visiting Continental cities and discovering he had a mission to bring the pavement cafe experience to the people of the UK. He became almost misty-eyed when he recalled how his mum used to live in north London and honouring her memory was also part of his calling. This strange sense of narcissistic nostalgia has been noticed in some of his predecessors, like the American James Rouse who sought to recreate an aesthetic of the traditional street-market in his massive development projects, like Baltimore’s Harborplace, somewhere that directly inspired Birmingham’s similarly portmanteaued ‘Brindleyplace’, just along Broad Street from the new library and developed by the aforementioned recreator of Kings Cross! They’re all in it together!
Perhaps stretching a point slightly, last week I went with my union branch to support the strikers at the National Gallery. As far as I know there are no plans to knock it down, but there are plans to attack worker’s pay and conditions, smash the union and accelerate the privatisation of access to art. Alongside the more general dismantling of our Welfare State and erosion of any true sense of civic pride, the commodification of culture seems almost trivial, but it’s symptomatic of an ideology that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
With all of the above rantage in mind, people may like this short video: