London's skyscrapers are a monument to the city's worship of finance

Cash boxes in the sky. Image: Getty.

A new skyscraper is set to join the City of London’s world-famous collection of oddly-designed buildings with novelty names. With 73 storeys, the Trellis will rival the Shard in height, and overshadow its next-door neighbours, the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesegrater. If all goes to plan, the tower will rise from the rubble of the existing Aviva building at 1 Undershaft, sometime in the 2020s.

In the aftermath of Brexit – at a time when investors are spooked and the pound has plummeted – the local government of London’s finance district (the City of London Corporation) was on the look out for a good news story. Keen to cast off the shroud of uncertainty and cement London’s status as a global financial hub, the City of London’s planning and transport committee chair, Chris Hayward, boldly proclaimed that “this development shows the high levels of investor confidence in London’s status as a global city following our decision to leave the European Union”.

Yet skyscrapers are not just slick, glassy lures for business and wealth; they tell us something about the character of London itself. St Paul’s Cathedral used to be the dominant landmark of the city, impressing locals and visitors alike with its scale and architectural finesse. Now, skyscrapers are the dominant structures, giving the finance sector an imposing physical presence.

Power building

Just as cathedrals were historically built to represent the power and presence of the church in everyday life, the Trellis is the latest tall building to speak for the dominance of the global financial market as a driving force in Western society. The scale and the grandeur of these distinctive constructions is a tribute to those who deliver the City’s wealth and success – and a symbol of the power they hold.

This power comes from the City of London’s status as one of the largest concentration of banking and financial services industries in the world. The City turns over an estimated $1.9trn worth of foreign exchange each day, accounting for 37 per cent of global capital flows.

It is also a critical site for job creation, with nearly 150,000 people employed by the financial sector and a further 140,000 in legal and accounting professions. In fact, countless jobs throughout the UK depend of the prosperity of its financial sector.

The fable of St Paul and the Cheesegrater. Image: Tim Benedict Pou/Flickr/creative commons.

There is a dark side to these built behemoths, though. For those who pass through the City’s streets, the shadows of these towering structures loom over the tightly knitted network of lanes and alleys, creating a sinister and somewhat claustrophobic feeling. They can intrude into, or even engulf public spaces, blocking out the sun or blocking off access routes.

There have been some attempts made to humanise these buildings. Their strange names and peculiar shapes have become figures of fun and play. They offer viewing platforms, sky-high dining experiences and interactive learning environments, to invoke a sense of identity and ownership.


Human error

But above all else, skyscrapers symbolise the deep entrenchment of market ideology within the very fabric of our society. These buildings mark out a stark geographical boundary of wealth and exclusivity, while their growing numbers reflect the concentration of wealth, not only in a specific area of London, but among a particular class of people. High levels of inequality indicate that this fountain of wealth does not trickle down throughout the rest of society – instead, it swills around the City.

Yet if it seems the architecture in this area of London is an uncritical homage to capitalism, then dig a little deeper: there are cautionary tales hidden in the history of London’s built environment. The failed Pinnacle project is an allegory for the financial market’s instability – and the devastating consequences when it fails.

The Pinnacle was designed to be 62 storeys tall – but it never rose beyond seven. After the global financial crisis hit in 2008, funding dried up, construction was halted, and the Pinnacle became known as the Stump. Only this year have developers been given permission to proceed with a new high-rise design, which will grow alongside the Trellis, to be completed in 2019.

Failed funding structures and overconfident developers are as much a part of the modern financial sector as wealth and job creation. But while old foundations can be used for new buildings, the massive impacts of financial sector failures are more difficult to mend.The Conversation

Alex Simpson is a lecturer in criminology at the University of Brighton.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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