Glass in architecture once represented transparency. In today’s hyper-gentrified London, it means the opposite

Walls of glass: the City of London. Image: Getty.

Stand on London Bridge on a sunny day and look east. You’ll see the towers of Canary Wharf glistening in the distance, the Shard looming to your right slicing into the sky, and the bloated curves of the Walkie Talkie shimmering like a newly blown glass vase. 

Walk further west along the South bank, and you’ll come across the ‘South Bank tower cluster’, with its centrepiece One Blackfriars jutting its chest out ostentatiously over the river. Further still, and you’ll reach Nine Elms, the biggest building site in the city. Scores of towers are flashing into the sky and construction has begun on the remarkably opulent ‘sky pool’, a 25m long, glass-bottomed swimming pool that hangs 10 storeys up.

These towers represent the most visible beacons of London’s continued development. They contain the moneymaking corporate machines that swell the city’s coffers but fuel the city’s rampant housing crisis, and the unaffordable luxury flats that are the symptom of the city’s hyper-gentrification.

Yet there is another aspect to their representation that often goes under-recorded in the hyperbole around London’s gentrification problem – namely, their most visible constituent material, glass.

In 1921, Ludwig Mies Van der Rhoe designed the now seminal Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper. While it was never built, it is credited as shattering architectural tradition by envisioning buildings that could support entire glass facades, based on a having a then-revolutionary supporting steel skeleton. Mies’ designs encouraged “fluid space”: the connection of the exterior and interior of buildings, bringing nature and light into the home or office.

By Mies van de Rohe 1921. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Later, in 1958, the ‘float glass’ production method meant much larger sheets of glass could be produced: that facilitating its shift from a decorative material, to one that was fundamental to a building’s construction.

Since then, glass has become one of the most used materials in building construction. In the UK, over 1m tonnes are used every year, it is 100 per cent recyclable, and it can reduce the carbon emissions of buildings by allowing for more efficient temperature regulation.

Because of its environmentally friendly qualities, many cities’ skylines are filled with acres and acres of glass. But in addition, building upon Mies’ original philosophies, it is a material most often associated with transparency, letting in light and allowing inhabitants to see and interact with the city around them. Glass is now so often the architects’ go-to material for modern, ‘homely’ construction, with its transparency and interactive materiality posited in contrast to the harsh, imposing, opaque and brutal forms of concrete.


Yet today, the glass towers of the City and the new-build luxury skyscrapers of the South Bank – and many more like them – are private citadels of the super-rich, imposing a harsh and brutal reality of evictions, displacements and estate demolition. And the concrete modernist housing blocks that they are replacing are fast becoming kitsch totems of a now-distant social housing dream that offered an ethics of commonality, social life and public space – the very characteristics that glass ‘yuppidromes’ so spectacularly fail to deliver.

The recent development of Elephant Park on the footprint of the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle is perhaps the most vivid reminder of this process. In addition, the jewel in the Nine Elms crown is the new US embassy that opened in January this year, supposedly the most secure building in the city. What material have they used to convey such heightened levels of opacity, security and ossifying national borders? Glass.

So while glass-fronted buildings offer glimpses into a private, secure and/or corporate world, these worlds are distant mirages. They are hyperreal.

Take one example: the Shard in London, itself covered in 56,000m2 of glass. It may allow the gawker to see inside and the inhabitant to gaze outside upon London’s skyline – but the glistening façade alludes to far-flung, hyper-mobile, international capitalist relations from Qatar that are opaque, and distance the building from the citizens below struggling to find housing. It’s distance so extreme, that the Qatari owners sought to defenestrate any protests as far from the building as possible.

The gaze from inside the Shard is afforded to those with enough capital and power to be able to inhabit the space permanently, or to visitors who have paid (a not insubstantial) entrance fee to obtain the picture postcard view. In both cases, the inhabitants of the building have had to decouple themselves from public space, to enter the privatised place of financialised urban spectacle.

And so, glass as a building’s surface, far from blurring the public-private spatial divide and (re)democratising urban space actually erects further divisions between the private, commercialised and financialised spaces of the contemporary city, and the public, democratic and contested places of urban citizenry. It offers a window into a private pastiche world that is visible, yet very distant from the public and agonistic commons.

The same accusation could be levelled at City Hall. According to the architects, the ‘glass egg’ “expresses the transparency and accessibility of the democratic process”. However, it is situated on private land, where protest – one of the most critical democratic process there is – is strictly forbidden.

The materials that are used in urban construction are vital in how citizens interact with them. Glass, once a material of fluidity, transparency and openness has come to symbolise the extreme inequality blighting so many of the world’s greatest cities. It was Ruth Glass who coined the term gentrification in 1964: little did she realise how aptronymic her name would be…

Oli Mould is a lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway. This article first appeared on his blog.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.