Husna Rizvi speaks to architectural photographer Lewis Bush about how powerful developers are altering the social and political fabric of the city.
It’s uncontroversial to say that the city of London is a patchwork of cranes, high-rises and strangely sterile luxury flat blocks that seem unoccupied even when they’re not. Londoners live on precarious wages and insecure employment. They’re also bombarded with advertisements that rebrand the corporate clamour for land as a mark of civilizational progress.
We spoke to Lewis Bush, author and architectural photographer, whose photo series Metropole seeks to disrupt such narratives and expose the alienation that a highly corporatized city can breed.
Where did the idea for this project come about?
I moved back to London after being away for a while and was shocked at the way the city had changed. Over the next couple of years I just started photographing it and became more and more staggered by what was going on and what was being approved.
The city is in a way being reshaped before my eyes by a relatively small and unaccountable group of people.
What was London like before that point?
The London I grew up in was a different place for a lot of different reasons. Obviously land in London has always been valuable – but there wasn’t quite the same clamour that you see now.
I can remember as a kid there were bomb sites left over from the war, which seems incredible now, because it seems like every available piece of land is being built on. It had these empty spaces, these derelict buildings. That has disappeared and it’s had the effect of pushing out people who maybe would’ve made use of those buildings, whether it’s artists with studios or people converting them to low cost housing. So it’s altered the fabric of the city but it’s also altered the character of the people who live here.
You’ve said that you ‘work from the standpoint that power is always problematic because its natural resting state is arbitrary and untransparent’. How is power arbitrary and untransparent, and what’s that got to do with the look of the city?
In terms of London, the power I'm interested in is economic power. It’s immense. These multinational developers have this vast wealth – huge annual profits, huge turnover. I’m partly interested in that economic power because money speaks – particularly in a city like London.
I’m also interested in the way that economic power intersects with political power in the interactions between developers and councils, which varies massively. Some councils are quite good at resisting the pressure that developers can put on them to approve schemes, others I would say are shockingly close to developers, and in some sense failing their political mandate.
Pressure’s probably the wrong word; actually it’s quite often collegial and friendly. A large amount of lobbying that goes on – on a local council level but also we see a lot of use of a mayoral power which is called ‘calling in’, where the Mayor’s office can essentially override local councils and approve schemes.
There’s also economic pressure in the sense that these developers buy large swathes of land and sit on them while boroughs will have housing shortages. They’re able to wave this carrot at councils – that ‘if you approve this large luxury scheme, we’ll build affordable housing’.
Why is there so much resistance to calling it gentrification instead of 'regeneration'?
A lot of people are angry about them and are resistant. Elephant and Castle is a great case in point. There’s been a huge community backlash to the redevelopment schemes which are basically seen as – to use that rather tricky term – social cleansing.
They’ve traditionally been a working class and more recently an immigrant Latin-American community. People’s objections have been ignored a lot – by local councils, by the Mayor’s office. Despite that anger, large council housing estates are being knocked down or redeveloped essentially to target private owners and private renters. The anger of local people has just not been addressed, not been answered.
Recently the council planning committee were due to give a verdict on it, to approve it or deny it, and it was widely expected that they would approve it but because there were council elections slated for May they delayed the announcement until after the elections. Presumably because they were aware of the backlash, that local people would be really angry about it.
Do you have a theory of alienation that comes out of this project?
It’s partly to do with a very basic visceral reaction to coming back to my city and feeling alienated by it, feeling like it doesn’t belong to me anymore. I think the thing that’s interesting about London is that we all have a kind of equal stake in the public realm.
Part of it is actually just disorientation in the sense that London has physically become kind of alien and confusing. Even now I quite often have this experience where I go to a part of London I haven’t been to for a while, and arriving in that area suddenly you don’t recognize it at all and the landmarks that you used to orientate yourself by have disappeared.
I had this conversation with my grandmother who’s in her 90s and she said: ‘Oh that’s just what it was like during the War, during the Blitz. That sometimes you’d go to an area and you wouldn’t recognize it.’ That’s so fascinating, that obvious comparison to the massive bombing of London during the War.
It’s also about alienation from the decision-making processes of how a city gets used. Part of the reason for using such expressionistic imagery is that it’s about my experience of London, but the aim is also – by juxtaposing that imagery against the corporate imagery used by developers – to show that what they produce is just as expressionistic, just as much a kind of fiction or a fantasy.
We need to be careful of being drawn in to these fantasies that they sell because once we approve them, once we allow them, it’s very difficult to go back from that.
What would a non-alienating London look like?
It would be a London where power and decision-making around how the city and its spaces are used is much more evenly distributed, particularly in areas that have tended not to be affluent. Too many councils and planning authorities have acted as if the opinion of people living in these areas doesn’t matter. It sounds naïve, but a London where local politics lives up to its supposed purpose in representing Londoners properly, including in things like planning – that would be a much fairer London.
At this one estate called the Heygate Estate, which was basically demolished and was being replaced by a private development… Someone looked at where the residents were relocated to. A lot of them had to relocate outside the borough, in some cases outside of London, in areas where they had quite limited connections or reasons to be living there apart from the fact that that was the only place they could buy or rent.
How does empire feed in to your analysis of alienation and urban gentrification?
London was obviously the centre of the British Empire for hundreds of years. Where previously it served to strip the countries around the world of their resources, now in a way that’s happening to London and a lot of other cities around the world.
With these large multinational companies I see something that’s somewhat akin to the empires of old in the sense that they reach across the globe, they have enormous financial, political and other forms of power. I think it’s interesting that a country and a city that once had such enormous global power and the ability to project its power, now is subject to these globalized trends and investments.
I just got back from Jersey in the Channel Islands, which people will know as a tax haven and it’s much the same thing. It’s strange that these places are very vulnerable to these global flows of money. Jersey is both somewhere that profits from this new empire of globalization and is also very vulnerable to it. I think you could say a similar thing about London.