26 April 2010


How to and how not to counterpose old & new architecture

This stands out as one of the nastiest mixings of old and new buildings I've ever seen. Take one historic facade (17th century?) on Gun Street, E1. Resentfully obey the letter of the listed building regulations, and do your damndest to flout the spirit of them. Knock down everything behind the facade and construct cheap-as-possible student housing in the kind of brick that'll be rotten in 40 years. Don't bother to align the windows, such that residents live in the dark and can only see three feet out on to the facade's concrete backing.

Meanwhile, in the background, a property developer constructs a new skyscraper according to formulae for maximising the floorplan at the lowest possible cost. The architects have no meaningful freedom, their only choice being how to whack on some "artfully asymmetric" cladding that enables the building to marketed as "designed" and "dynamic". In this way capital is over-leveraged, architecture constructed as a commodity, and lots more lovely capital (hopefully) accumulated.

In contrast, take this remarkably sympathetic use of materials for new-ish apartments on the River Lea near Bow. For once a block that was no-doubt marketed as having gritty urban-cool "warehouse" style actually has some dialogue with the dilapidated industrial buildings beside it. Ok, the form's nothing special. But just something in how the wood has weathered; the colour of the glass; the perforated steel balconies. Hemmed in on two sides by motorways (the A11 and A12), I can't promise that this is a genuinely functional, flourishing neighbourhood. When the old warehouses get knocked down for more new development, this fragile architectural sympathy between old and new will be lost. But for a few moments, on a sunny day in April...

13 April 2010

The streets speak: urban political broadcasts

Stoke Newington Road, just north of Shacklewell Lane.

High Road, near Seven Sisters underground station.

Original government poster available here, and below:

The ad agency's brief: "Redefining petty fiddlers as full-on benefit thieves." Or, 'scapegoating people trying to get by on an unlivable income as criminals.' Jobseeker's Allowance is all of £51.85 a week for someone my age. I'm counting the pennies living in this city on a graduate starting salary; damn right I'd be getting cash-in-hand work under the table if I had fifty quid a week for food/bills/my entire life. Wouldn't you?

East London charity Community Links says:

"From our experience giving advice to over 12,000 people each year in Newham, we know that almost all those defrauding the system do so out of need, not greed. They need a few hours work to tide them over – to pay a surprise bill, or replace the microwave. Declaring it to the Jobcentre would mean any earnings are deducted from benefits, leaving them with no extra money. Punishing these people is unfair, but also destructive – they need stepping stones to a job and higher income, not sanctions which push them further into poverty."

2008/09 figures from the DWP show total benefits expenditure of £136bn. Out of this, fraud amounted to 0.8% (£1.1bn) - which we might contextualise by noting that £0.8bn of total spend was made up of overpayments due to official error. In addition, £0.5bn was underpaid due to official error, so the magnitude of government mistakes (£1.3bn of Getting It Wrong) is in fact rather more than dole scroungers scrounged.

Just so we can understand the scapegoating of the bottom 10% of society in proper perspective, you understand. Advertising won't have any impact on serious fraudsters. It'll do a lovely job of deterring those in legitimate need from claiming money they have a right to, though, and a campaign focused on "hunting down" benefits "thieves" uses such lovely aggressive language to exacerbate middle class prejudices and promote social inequality. Mmmm...