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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.